Visitors, Arcola Theatre, London – review

It is always a privilege to be bounded by the same four walls as Linda Bassett, but when the walls are as close as those of the Arcola’s Studio 2 the privilege becomes more palpable. This is despite the fact that in such an intimate space Bassett seems, paradoxically, to be doing so much less acting. She simply finds the human being at the heart of the character assigned her and sets about being that person.

In Barney Norris’s play Visitors, Bassett is Edie, who has lived for 50 or so years with husband Arthur on his family’s farm in the west of England, but is now in the early stages of senile dementia. Norris follows the couple, their semi-disconnected son Stephen and volunteer live-in carer Kate over the comparatively short period between first practical plans (ie Kate’s arrival) and irreversible action (putting the farm on the market and moving Edie into residential care). Edie muses on how she is, unwillingly, moving out of her own life, and the others join in with harmonies and counterpoints to the cumulative effect that, at root, we are all of us merely visitors in the existence afforded us.

Norris recently published the first book-length study of playwright and director Peter Gill, and his writing chimes with Gill’s in its deliberate undemonstrativeness. Director Alice Hamilton, too, knows never to push for any gesture of any size. Robin Soans’s Arthur gets to bark the occasional line tersely, but that is about as blatant as it gets. More typical are the private, often deadpan jokes built up through Arthur and Edie’s life together which, when inherited by Stephen, take a turn for the sepulchral.

There is no sensation, no spectacle, by some measures, not much of anything. My pad remained almost devoid of notes – but precisely because it all proved so quietly compelling. Edie’s description of her condition, as being like a dam that never opens so that the freshly stored water never flows out, is an emblem for the entire play in its modest eloquence. And in Bassett the production has the perfect exponent of the corresponding performance style.

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