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Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Home premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 17 June 1970, directed by Lindsay Anderson with the extraordinary cast of John Gielgud as Harry, Ralph Richardson as Jack, Dandy Nichols as Marjorie and Mona Washbourne as Kathleen. Jessica Tandy replaced Nichols later in the Broadway run. David Storey also adapted his play for the 6 January 1972 broadcast of the British television series Play for Today. It was again directed by Anderson and featured the same cast.

41 years later and a new production revives this classic play from a time when a Boeing 747 made its first commercial passenger trip to London, The Beatles released their final album Let It Be, Edward Heath became the new Prime Minister and Jimi Hendrix was found dead in Kensington.

Storey‘s wonderful play about old age and mental infirmity is one of the glories of modern drama and it was a pleasure to see it revived in the intimacy of the Minerva Theatre, Chichester in John Roche’s haunting and sensitive production. It is the first time the play has been seen since Storey’s death in 2017.

Into a scruffy, country house garden stroll two old gentlemen, who greet each other courteously. They discuss the past, the weather, old friends, moustache-styles, and the war. Are they perhaps in a small private hotel? But all is not quite what it seems, and soon enough we realise we are actually in the grounds of a mental hospital, and these old men are patients. With astonishingly sparse dialogue, by the time the day is over and the shadows fall, we as an audience are moved to compassion, sympathy, and respect for these extraordinarily ordinary men together with their fellow inmates.

Sophie Thomas’ beautiful and exquisite design is perfect, broken paths, discarded coke cans and a plethora of huge dandelions fill the stage. The dandelion is a weed that many consider to spoil a green lawn, however, the roots can be used to make a coffee substitute; the leaves are edible; and they are an excellent source of many vitamins and minerals. The set may be static but Alex Musgrave’s terrific lighting design creates movement and life within it as the clouds pass over and sunlight creeps in and out of this ‘rubbish heap’ environment.

For all its melancholy (Storey himself suffered from clinical depression that resulted in a period of psychiatric care), the play is also very, very funny. Jack (a splendid John Mackay) remarks that a neighbour of his died one morning by falling down the stairs and the extraordinary thing was they were due to move into a bungalow the following day!

For much of the play I was reminded of Waiting for Godot and in a similar, absurdist way nothing happens, twice, however Roche’s taut direction and electrifying performances from the cast of 5 elevate this production to the level of ‘outstanding’. Daniel Cerqueira as Harry is utterly superb, all English reserve and emotionally inarticulate but it is Hayley Carmichael as Kathleen who leaves the lasting memory. It is quite simply one of the best performances I have ever seen and deserves a multitude of awards.

This is a production that doesn’t leave you as you walk to the car park. Towards the end of the play the men discuss the ‘nature of this little island’ and list Darwin, Newton, Milton and Raleigh as characters we shan’t see the like of again. ‘The sun has set’ on these giants of Englishness. Perhaps in light of recent history, it is the English who currently reside in a mental institution having chosen isolation and loneliness as opposed to community and co-operation. This play was written before the UK joined the EEC in 1973 but this prophetic conclusion can’t have come at a more timely moment in it’s chequered history.

The timing of this revival is even more poignant with a mental health epidemic in our midst. My only quibble was the time setting with coloured photos in a newspaper, a digital watch and Crocs, however, this is clearly a deliberate choice which slightly jars with some of the poetic language. This is a minor criticism because this is a production which deserves a much wider audience. For those that know me well also know I am not known for hyperbole suffice it to say this is an exceptional theatrical experience.

I absolutely loved it!


Reviewer: Patric Kearns