Lovesong, Lyric Hammersmith, London

The title of this piece is interesting. Love songs so often focus on one element – passion, euphoria, loss – but Abi Morgan’s play, developed together with choreography from Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly, considers love over the long haul. Lovesong takes one relationship and visits it at the beginning, end and points in-between, the twist being that the periods of time overlap on stage. The show skilfully uses the three-dimensional nature of theatre to bend time. So the young Maggie (Leanne Rowe) steps into a cupboard and her older self (Siân Phillips) steps back out; the old Billy (Sam Cox) sits at the table and suddenly glimpses his younger wife or his younger self (Edward Bennett); a character from one era puts down a glass and a character from another picks it up.

As the older Maggie is terminally ill, and as the contemplation of advancing years, lost youth and vanished time is something no one can escape, this choreography becomes immensely poignant – never more so than when the couples swap partners momentarily, sharing a touch, a glance or a brief dance. Ian William Galloway’s back projections of soaring starlings and cave paintings and Carolyn Downing’s elegiac sound design continue the theme of transience, though there are times when both feel over-insistent, even manipulative. I would have welcomed more astringency and less tugging at the heartstrings. But the sympathy of the piece and the candour of the four performances gradually lift it into a tender meditation on time and our place in it.

The story itself is simple. Billy and Maggie marry in the 1960s, move to America, then navigate the ups and downs of marriage. Finally the kitchen table on which they once made love becomes the focus of a final act of tenderness, when Billy sits alongside Maggie as she counts out enough pills to kill her in her sleep. All this is sewn into the rich, restless physical texture of the piece.

The drama is at its best when at its most wry, specific or frank: when the older Billy expresses his terror and grief at his wife’s impending death by launching into a tirade, for example. And the physical detail can be very touching: as when Bennett lifts Phillips in a loving duet. It is a gentle, compassionate piece, but would be more moving still if it strove less hard to be so.

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