Living Memory – Q2 Players – 30th November 2019 at The National Archives
Review by Michael Horne
Photographer: Ben Gingell Photography
I’ve known about Q2 Players for a few years through a friend but had not had the pleasure of seeing them perform. On hearing that they were performing a brand new play, I was intrigued. I had the privilege of reading the play ahead of the performance, thanks to my friend, and I desperately wanted to see it “on its feet”. And so it turns out that on a chilly Saturday morning in November, we made our way to The National Archives in Kew, London.
Living Memory, written and directed by Genni Trickett, is a story of two couples living at the same address, approximately 75 years apart. Both couples have suffered a tragedy and it is against this backdrop that we learn more about them, their troubles and the strengths and weaknesses of their relationships. I’ve gone through my fair share of tragedy and so expect to see my opinion on how well this aspect was conveyed in this review.
The key to this play is that both couples appear on stage at the same time, sometimes almost interacting and, in the second half, connecting in a curious way as their stories move closer together. Ms Trickett has clearly lived and breathed her play during the writing, planning and rehearsal process. Every scene was perfectly worked out in terms of the physicality of the space and not a word or gesture was wasted.
Leading the cast were two actresses: Mia Skytte as Jo was the wife in the “now” and Fliss Morgan was Ruby in the “past”. Ms Skytte portrayed a woman in deep pain, which is always a difficult thing to do subtly, but she kept herself right on the edge of her despair and frustration. A credit to the writing as well as the performance, Ms Skytte never telegraphed her mood swings and when they came they were painful, and all too familiar, to witness. I was particularly impressed with how she was able to get across the portrayal of a normally strong woman who has had her nerves exposed and who is all to likely to bite the head off of anybody who gets too close.
Fliss Morgan as Ruby, in playing a 1945 rural housewife, also provided us with a masterclass in subtlety. Her own heartbreak, revealed in different ways to Jo’s, and the distinct way she dealt with it were a knife to the heart of anyone who has gone through something similar. To begin with, Ruby seems trapped in her marriage, and you wonder how far that marriage has added to the anguish she feels. The interesting part of her character arc, for me, was that it turns out she has more choices in her life than it first appears. Ms Morgan clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how her character would hold herself together because she has to, rather than because she wants to.
The husbands: Jerry (in the now) and Frank (in the past), were played by Matt Tester and Craig Cameron-Fisher, respectively. To start with, I was worried that the two men were just going to be secondary to their on-stage wives. I needn’t have worried, however, as Ms Trickett gave them both fully rounded characters to inhabit. As Jerry, Jo’s husband, Mr Tester was, initially, the picture-perfect husband. He’s refurbished the cottage where the story takes place, he’s prepared a home for his wife, and he’s proud of what he’s accomplished.
More to the point, he at first believes that the house in the country will be the solution to all of their problems.
He wants it to be, he needs it to be. That this is slowly revealed not to be the case slowly breaks him down into a drunken mess. I was truly impressed by Mr Tester’s performance – it was horribly familiar.
Mr Cameron-Fisher slowly developed into a frustrated, despairing, much more weary man than he initially appears. My first reaction to Frank was that he was a typical 1940s husband, but there was much more to him than that. It was the twisting of my expectations that proved his performance to be a match to his counterpart, and of no less quality. Anyone who has had to deal with what the older couple had gone through, no matter how different that experience might be, can attest to the differences in the way people deal with that pain. Mr Cameron-Fisher accurately portrayed the bewilderment of a husband when his wife turns into, as he sees it, a different person. Frank was played as a likeable, but flawed man who just wants to do what’s best, and that is no mean feat.
Adding to the mix of characters was Simone White as Rachel, Jo’s sister. Although not stated explicitly (that I noticed), you could tell that she had been trained as a counsellor or psychiatrist and at first I feared that was all she would give us as a character. She was far more nuanced, however, as the concern for her sister grew throughout the play. I did find that she accepted some of Jo’s more extreme statements a little too readily, but this added to the sisterly bond. Ms White gave us a rounded portrayal of the relative who just can’t quite break through the emotional walls erected by the person who they can see is in pain.
Playing “the other man” is always difficult for an actor. Hugh Cox, playing Russell, Jo’s boss, had this unenviable role. As an audience, we are set-up to dislike him, from some of the comments made by Jerry, and to start with we watch in horror as he makes a play for Jo. Again, however, Ms Trickett subverts our expectations – Russell was a much more complex character than we are led to believe initially. Mr Cox played the change between hopeful suitor and rejected and slightly wounded masterfully. He also did what I believe is essential for a supporting character: do a lot with not a lot of stage time.
The final supporting character, Gracie, was played by Andrea Wilkins. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting to sit there with my mouth open while Ms Wilkins talked a hundred words a second. She did the part of the “overbearing visiting friend” perfectly. The reaction I, as an audience member, felt was part fascination, part horror and part humour as she spoke incessantly at Ruby, who she was visiting. Even this, small role Ms Trickett invested a lot of care in – to start with you are just overwhelmed by the chatter from Gracie, but after a while you understand why she is at the house, and her motivations.
Technically, the show was very involving. The soundscape, which involved a lot of footsteps up and down stairs, as well as birds, crying babies and cars was just right without becoming overbearing. I particularly liked that the footsteps came from the correct part of the set. It was also lit well, drawing attention to the correct part of the set with good isolation. Considering the limitations of the space and equipment, the group did well. I would like to have seen the back flats painted, rather than draped – we spent so long looking at them, being a single set show, that just a bit more “normalness” would have helped. Having said that, the set was dressed wonderfully, with the split time period detail giving us a lot to look at without drawing focus from the actors.
As a piece of theatre, Living Memory was, simply, terrific. The writing had captivated me from the moment I read it a few months before the performance. I was desperate for it to be as good performed as it was read. I was not disappointed. The actors were provided with wonderful material, and the character arcs of every person were distinct, well-portrayed and realistic. From a personal point-of-view, I recognised much of the pain of the piece, and the stages of grief as played in Living Memory were horribly familiar. In fact, at times it was too familiar and I wanted to look away. This is the power of great theatre: this play took a situation that no-one would wish on another person and explored it with panache, conviction and passion. It is a rare thing to witness, and I cannot heap enough praise on Q2 Players for putting their confidence in the writer and director to bring this stunning play to life.