Generally speaking I am not very keen on plays that deal with “issues”. All too easily it’s the issue that dominates at the expense of the drama. Often one feels that the performance should be on a soapbox, not a stage. Up In Arms, who are on tour with Visitors, demonstrate how an “issue” play can and should be done.
Ostensibly it’s about what to do about mum now she’s getting old and dementia is beginning to take hold. Edie and her husband Arthur live on a remote farm where they have spent their lives. Edie’s mind is going but she handles her fate with stoicism and humour with help and support from Arthur and a young carer – but in spite of her selfish, and let’s be honest, arse-hole, son.
Now, on the face of it, watching Visitors does not sound like a fun night out. It may not be fun but it is certainly worthwhile. The play by Barney Norris is a beautifully judged and balanced piece of theatre. I emphasise the word theatre because, above all, this is an exceptionally good play. It has fully rounded characters, a well developed story line and it draws one in and makes one care and understand. It deals with important issues but deals with them in a dramatic way, not by preaching and haranguing the audience.
But Visitors is not only about getting old. It is how individuals react to situations which threaten to overwhelm them. It is about isolation; about the little islands on which we all live and the driftwood we cling to when the waters rise.
Are we the masters of our own destiny? Are we the drivers of our lives or merely the passengers? Everybody in Visitors is a passenger being swept along to an inevitable end and the odd thing is that nobody resists. As Edie says, ‘All falls away though, doesn’t it. Tide goes out on us.’ But Visitors is not a tear-jerker, not a “drama”. It is a matter-of-fact, that’s-how-things-are reflection on a situation that we will all probably face, one way or another, sooner or later.
It would be difficult to find fault with Visitors. It is beautifully written, well observed, objective yet sympathetic. It had, to me, something of Arnold Wesker about it. The four actors were all excellent and everyone involved with the production should be proud of their night’s work.
But, of course, it was Linda Bassett who triumphed. Her quiet portrayal of Edie was perfectly judged and mesmerising, I hardly took my eyes off her. No tugging at the heart-strings, just telling it like it is – understated, but nevertheless a tour de force. Highly recommended, miss Visitors at your peril. ★★★★★ Michael Hasted