by James Fritz
A Leasehold On Life
Celebrating its sixtieth year, the National Youth Theatre (NYT) of Great Britain has taken up temporary residence at bijou theatrical fringe powerhouse The Finborough with The Fall, a youthful play - about growing old.
Award-winning playwright James Fritz, who himself benefited from the NYT actor training scheme, has crafted a quietly ambitious three-part, hour long youth-to-death play, equally as a fable about economics and art as the ageing process.
The character names, "girl" (LaTanya Peterkin) and "boy" (Oliver Clayton) in the first part give a clue to the literary Everyman quality of the play. A paid daily companion and her boyfriend are eager to find a place to have sex. They invade the supposedly empty private home of a geriatric client of the young woman, a solicitor approaching his centenary, using the keys entrusted to her.
As they indulge ritualistic animal functions of life and envy the homeowner, the comfort of the home is only conjured up through words at odds with the clinical looking bed at the centre of the stage space surrounded by the audience on three sides.
The scene is set as we hear about the girl's mundane duties: Watering the plants, cleanng and chatting to her client. Yet the harsh tone cuts through when she preens herself for being "nice" - and then adds "he pays me".
Meanwhile the athletic boy underlines his buff, healthy status, dismissing his link with ancestors for the here and now. He uses the bed for push ups, his entry into the "county trials" assured (presumably for athletics rather than the archaic county courts of the lawyer), wooing the girl with a pop song from the sixties.
Indeed, this act has a radiophonic quality and needs slightly more precise direction to bring out the reason for tell and not show. Still, it effectively displays a modern employer-employee relationship with the property-owning moribund elderly lawyer hanging on to life which, in its grotesque finale could still have come out of Dickensian times.
Remniniscent in style of the BBC TV licence advert, the second part brings us into the much faster moving media age, with director Matt Harrison showing a strong hand. A couple, numerically labelled ONE (Katya Morrison) and TWO (James Morley), mechanically pulling apart and making up a bed as they age from youth to middle age, courtship to a twisted midlife crisis.
At first TWO worries about meeting her fiancee ONE's Mum, then it's their tenancy, the roof over their head, jobs and, after procreation creates a male heir, the future for their own little descendant. The play then slyly curls round to give a different and increasingly desperate focus on the older generation.
As the years pass, we feel how, as the social insurances for the couple fall away, the woman unlinked to her partner's mother by blood, grows dominant, willing to accommodate the unthinkable for the sake of her child. While, it seems even the authorities collude with her, unwilling to bring a contemporary generation to book.
The third part links intricately with the past and looks forward to a dystopian future honing in on the last generation clinging to a memory of privacy, family ties, natural love, geographical roots and, yes, those old-fashioned things, computer games. ;)
Now they are merely letters, A (Hannah Farnhill), B (Matilda Doran-Cobham), C (Simeon Blake-Hall) and D (Ben Butler) to be filed away in a cell around a bed, away from the sight of the younger generation and with the choice (or so it seems) to live or take medication to die.
Here the lighting of Seth Rook Williams brings an added chiaroscuro dimension while the non gender specific casting reflects the gradual flattening of real people in real places into mere algebra.
With an affecting central performance by Hannah Farnhill as the latest entrant into this limbo land where the explanations of the "Liaison" (Katya Morrison again) for the other disappearing residents link up with her role as younger mother in the previous act.
The whole cast, dressed in grey, go from music festival energy to more militarised robotic disappointment in between the acts around the bed (design Chris Hone). This is a subtle and disciplined piece reflecting on the move from literature to screen, the title and ending indicating James Joyce's epic Finnegan's Wake as a template.
Whereas the Wake concentrated on the atomized artificial speed of lives on film, Fritz examines an age moving into the automated response of algorithms clashing with the prime and withering of fragile human love, blood and flesh An amber/green light for a brave and thoughtful production.