“Hold the frame,” barks Maureen Lipman’s Elli at her husband Joe as the two sashay round the living room in practice for a ballroom dancing competition. It’s an instruction that, as Oliver Cotton’s play goes on, will seem revealing: these two have been holding the frame for decades, bracing themselves against feelings and memories that might destroy them.
An elderly Jewish couple living in 1980s Brooklyn, Joe and Elli seem to rubbing along reasonably amicably when we meet them, bickering away over domestic trivia. Elli shoots from the hip. “What suit are you wearing?” she asks. “I thought the blue,” he responds. Pause. “Bring the others.” Lipman is expert at this, her comic timing perfect, and Harry Shearer’s Joe, a lovely, dry performance, is the ideal foil: a mild shrug suggests a man practised at maintaining a quiet life.
Then into all this humdrum activity falls a bombshell. While Elli is out, there’s a ring at the door. In walks Joe’s brother Billy, not seen for 30 years and now suddenly on the doorstep at 10 in the evening, oddly attired in a Hawaiian shirt and exhibiting a prodigious thirst for whiskey. What ails him? After a long preamble, we find out. While holidaying at Daytona Beach Billy has spotted a man from their wartime past. Into the comfortable living room falls the long shadow of the Holocaust. But that’s not all. Billy (played here by the playwright) has executed summary justice. His brother is horrified.
So far, so good. Somewhat schematic, maybe, but Cotton has set the stage for a serious, meaty debate about how you deal with the past and whether direct action is ever morally justified. Yet rather than explore these questions fully – starting with whether Billy had the right man – the play does an odd swerve, spending the second act on a second revelation, this time of a tragic love triangle. You can see why Cotton might want to examine the complex interplay of motives and feelings, but it all feels improbable, dramatically awkward and leaves neither issue properly explored.
Thematic overload and a lopsided structure undercut the play’s impact. But Cotton’s dialogue is sharp, funny and sometimes profoundly evocative. And David Grindley’s fine production (transferring from the tiny Park Theatre) is performed with subtle grace. Lipman and Shearer shine in particular: droll and smart on the surface, they both movingly suggest the pain concealed beneath their strategies for survival.