All in all this was a carefully considered revival of Colder Than Here, with plenty of talent on show but in the service of an unshowy play that deserves to be seen more often in its original stage version, despite its successful television adaptation.
Laura Wade’s play was first shown in the West End back in 2005, and here achieves a welcome and solid revival at the Guildhall School. In some ways it is a surprising choice for an academy production given that the themes and two of the characters are closer to the end rather than the start of life, and thus potentially remote from the experience of student performers.
However, this gentle nuanced meditation on the broad, family challenges of preparing for death through terminal illness responds to careful sensitive treatment. This is what it receives here from the four players and experienced director Lisa Blair, who uncover fine layers of black humour and hope as well as more predictable autumnal bleakness.
On entering the studio theatre at Milton Court one is struck first by the set and the back-drop, lots of copper pipes – the innards of a suburban house exposed to view. Surrounded by the three banks of seats is a living room of a studiedly unfashionable kind, very much comfy, rather than stylish, and harking back to the 1990s when the middle-aged would certainly still have had stacks of LPs to hand near the TV.
But a lot of the action also happens off of the central platform, as the characters visit urban and rural sites with projected video images on the back wall to set the scene. There they tend to find an honesty and openness that eludes them at home.
There is little plot – plot is not the point here, and in fact we know it all by the end of the first scene in which Myra (Talullah Bond) and Jenna (Phoebe Marshall) check out a potential site for a green burial. Myra has terminal cancer and has reacted to that by taking charge of every detail of planning possible surrounding her departure, whether it is her ultimate location, or a cardboard coffin and how it is to be painted.
Myra is clearly the brisk coping sort, who responds to a challenge that is impossible to encompass with activity rather than passivity. However, in a fairly emotionally inarticulate English family this stores up problems with all the others, who feel excluded from both the planning and the action and the possibility of grieving.
There is lots of scope for wry, dark ‘Northern’ humour here of a type we would associate with Alan Bennett; but there is a lot more too. Wade is interested above all in even-handed development of character, in giving equal weight to everyone’s viewpoint, and showing how the crisis of an imminent death brings to the surface emotions and tensions long suppressed by the dissipating effect of the daily routine of working and family life.
This is where the production really scores: the joshing intimacy of the family surfaces gives way to reveal long-standing differences of perspective and opinion between busy Myra and ineffectual Alec, her husband (Jonny Lavelle), and their two daughters: efficient, apparently strong, Harriet (Mhairi Gayer), and oddball, quirky rebel, Jenna, who together seem to combine the two warring aspects of their mother’s personality.
Lisa Blair has encouraged the actors to find the hard edges while preserving the warmth of shared family affection, a difficult balance to strike.
Gayer and Marshall are highly convincing as the two contrasted sisters, all disdainful sibling rivalry as the pressures mount, and both dissolving under the pressures of events and finding comfort in each other again. Each of these jarring encounters is finely rendered and the emotions are convincingly realised and earned as roles gradually reverse.
Lavelle and Bond have the more tricky task in playing middle-aged people somewhat defeated by life when they are only starting out on theirs. The more obviously theatrical moments are well done: there is a funny-poignant telephone monologue for Alec, in which he rants at and confides in a customer care receptionist, which is both amusing and desperately sad as it should be.
And Bond gets the gradations right as her mask of confidence slips and her fears and anxieties emerge, and her concern to plan the future for her family becomes a concrete expression of frustrated love on the verge of its confine. However, there is a wan hopelessness about the tone of the writing for this couple at times which eludes the actors and frankly you would not wish them to know it yet either.
Technically the show is very professional. Frankie Bradshaw’s set works well, and the piping helpfully embodies one of the counter-point themes of the play – the boiler is on the blink for the duration of Myra’s decline – another type of cold that is gathering and gaining hold.
There was one avoidable blemish, however: some of the video titles shown on the backdrop were simply too low for the audience to read beyond the set. Some neat thematic sound cues were on hand to cover scene changes and the lighting carefully reflected the changing lustre of the seasons between autumn and summer, an important undertow in the writing.
All in all this was a carefully considered revival, with plenty of talent on show but in the service of an unshowy play that deserves to be seen more often in its original stage version, despite its successful television adaptation. Wade demonstrates that there is always more to be said on this most perennial of themes so long as it is refracted undogmatically through characters carefully and lovingly imagined.