There’s a certain dark discomfort surrounding death and the elderly. Unspoken yet ever-present, the potential and promise of death is an ubiquitous bleeping underfoot in conversations with (or pieces about) elderly characters – a tension and frisson that bubbles beneath the surface of proceedings. As with many forms of tension, its eventual breaking can be powerfully comic.
It’s this comedic tension that provides much of the impetus in ‘Moon River’, a new play at the upstairs space at Islington’s Pleasance Theatre. Originally developed from interviews and conversations with elderly members of the East London landscape, the play’s setting is the Silver Street Centre, an old folks’ home with a variety of loveably crazy and crazily loveable inhabitants (patients? Inmates?), whose candid conversations about their declining health and the lumbering approach of death make for some uncomfortable yet blackly comic moments throughout the evening.
Performed by a cast ranging from Gen-Y to people born during World War Two, the play delights in its own versatility and unpredictability. Our eyes for the evening come in the form of Gladys, a new addition to the centre, whose free spirit and colourful language jars with the dullened, glass-eyed activities schedule laid out by Jennifer Lee’s perky centre facilitator, Sandy. If you’re thinking this all sounds suspiciously ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’-esque, think again; the play quickly abandons any ‘rebel vs. the institution’ aesthetic in favour of a stylistically innovative pick’n'mix that lurches boldly between seemingly disparate theatrical trappings, from song to soliloquoy to fantasy sequence to nightmare sequence to almost farcical comedy set-pieces (such as a very amusing bingo scene).
This jarring pace-changing is both Moon River’s greatest strength and its largest shortcoming. The break-neck shifts of tone, from laugh-a-minute to eyebrow-raisingly dark in the blink of an eye, are wonderfully jarring and encouraging to the audience, and these quick shifts are masterfully executed by director Caroline Horton. Where ‘Moon River’ falters, however, is in the textual and verbal clunkiness of these shifts – a sweet reunion fantasy scene between adorably bashful Frank (Daniel Copeland) and the largely-silent Esther (Lizzie Wort) is touchingly executed by the director and performers, but seems wholly out of place with both characters’ journeys throughout the piece.
What the script does well, however, is the gags. Julia Voce sinks her teeth wonderfully into Gladys’ vintage humour (“you can’t give someone an ASBO just for speaking German on the bus!”), and the patter surrounding fading dame Ingrid’s alzheimers is masterfully executed by Carola Stewart. ‘Moon River’ shows tremendous comic strength at points, and is bold and unflinching in its approach to its uncomfortable subject matter of death, disease, and old age. Its hairpin-corner stylistic turns are full of good intention, yet sloppily executed, leaving the audience feeling ever so slightly unsatisfied upon its conclusion. There’s no denying the talent of the cast, director, and writer, but you wonder how much longer this should’ve been kept in the oven to push it over the line from good to great.
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