As the American columnist and humourist Erma Bombeck has written, the family unit has ties that both ‘bind and gag.’ The anger derives as much from what you feel you cannot say as it does from what you feel you must do. In Broken Strings, David and Rose find an almost happy ending; lots of others are less fortunate.
Broken Strings, a ninety minute two hander which opened on September 7 at the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick, deals with love and loss. Forty-year old David (Steven Arnold) has lost his much-loved wife Susan, but to add to his considerable load he now has to figure out what to do with Rose (Linda Clark), his seventy-something mother in law, who lives in the same modest house.
This would make life difficult enough for David were Rose a sweet-tempered old lady, but she’s a cantankerous narcissist instead. David, however, promised Susan before she died that he’d take care of her mum and he’s not going to break that promise. So take care of Rose, in the face of his enormous grief, he intends to do.
It’s a simple, linear play, without any major surprises, but that doesn’t mitigate its emotional impact and one that spoke very loudly to this writer. Love and loss are themes for the ages, of course, but the burden of care of elderly parents diminishing in faculties is very much one of the present age. People live longer, or are kept alive longer, and responsibility for them generally falls upon their middle-aged children. It’s a rite of passage for the middle-aged.
Meeting these obligations of love, to the departed as much as those still alive, is traumatic and exhausting. Anger, followed by guilt, back again to anger; and so it goes. Philip Larkin, who loved his mum and wrote to her daily when she was in her 80s, spoke of a ‘perpetual burning bush of fury in my chest’. What Larkin also felt about the ageing process and its manifold indignities can also be deduced from his poem The Old Fools.
Rose and David have never got on. David only took her into his house for his wife’s sake. Rose knows that and feels unwelcome and a burden. But however much she might threaten to go into a care home, it’s an empty threat and David knows it.
One might think that their mutual bereavement might bring these two together, but it doesn’t. Rather it sharpens the differences. They’re lost in loss, and Rose, openly and unforgivably, tells David, a mere husband, that he has suffered much less greatly than she, a mother who has buried her child. That’s the thing about death: it doesn’t sprinkle balm and understanding upon the bereaved, much as we might want it to do.
So David and Rose are locked together in a grim pas de deux. It’s The Odd Couple without the laughs. They share a small house, the front door onto the street opening into a kitchen/dining room which forms the set in the tiny Tabard Theatre. To add to their difficulties, David and Rose have a very limited living space. How they coped when Susan was alive is anyone’s guess.
The time is almost now. It’s the late 1990s, and there is, for example, an analogue phone and David riffles through a phone book, with covers and pages and writing, to find a number. But otherwise it feels recent.
The short play is told in a series of short scenes unfolding over a two-year period, all of which occur around the small kitchen table. There are the first, numb, days in the immediate aftermath of Susan’s funeral, David returns to work, there is Christmas. Of course, through time, the relationship changes and hostility begins to be replaced by something else.
By the end of the drama, a rapprochement between David and Rose beckons and there is a sense of David’s life moving on. But it occurs quite late in the play and it happens rather suddenly and abruptly rather than gradually. This is when this generally admirably clear and uncluttered writing could do with a little more sophistication.
Rose is also so unremittingly hostile and evil-tongued for most of the play that her later amelioration, though welcome to the audience, is hard to take at face value.
There are other problems. David is a working class Mancunian. Rose is a working class Londoner. The play resembles a simultaneous split screen broadcast of Coronation Street and EastEnders. David could, of course, have moved south as a young man, but the confusion leaves the audience with too many unnecessary questions to work out.
Linda Clark has a good Lancashire accent, as her work with Peter Kay shows, so it might have been better and more coherent to have her use that and set the play in the working class northwest. Moreover, the play feels more small-town northern than southern. There is a slight flavour of Alan Bennett – another writer who has written extensively about the burden of duties imposed by elderly and incapacitated parents.
This would be, perhaps, a minor quibble if it were not that the acting styles are different as well. Steven Arnold, best known for playing Ashley Peacock in Coronation Street for 15 years, has an acting style honed by the small screen while Linda Clark’s style is more stagey. Arnold’s approach is perhaps better suited to this tiny space, but the main concern is that it sometimes feels that the two actors are in two different plays.
Finally, the incidental music that covers the scene changes is all wrong. There’s a sweet and whimsical air to them, such as ‘How do you like your eggs in the morning?’ by Dean Martin and Helen O’Connell and ‘Let’s face the music and dance’ by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It’s no hardship at all to listen to these vocalists, but it did seem a bit jaunty for a play about a bereaved husband and his mother in law tearing each other to pieces.
But these shortcomings don’t make this play any less worthwhile or any less pertinent to our life and times. Both Arnold and Clark give whole-hearted, totally committed performances and the rapport between them is likely to richen over the course of the run. It’s a powerful, emotional play that deals with important themes, and ones that are likely to become more important rather than less.
As the American columnist and humourist Erma Bombeck has written, the family unit has ties that both ‘bind and gag.’ The anger derives as much from what you feel you cannot say as it does from what you feel you must do. David and Rose find an almost happy ending; lots of others are less fortunate.