“Oh don’t start the Welsh”
One of the pleasures that comes from working one’s way through the raft of theatregoing opportunities that present themselves here is the chance of spotting emerging talent and being able to follow their early days, not just with actors but with playwrights too. Laura Stevens is one such writer I’m tipping for success and another is Tim Price whose new play Salt, Root and Roe is the opening work in this year’s Donmar Trafalgar Studios season. His first play For Once was a highlight of new writing in the summer downstairs at the Hampstead and so my expectations here were high.
The three play Donmar at Trafalgar season is designed to showcase their Resident Assistant Directors scheme and with Salt, Root and Roe, it is Hamish Pirie’s turn to bring some of the Donmar aesthetic to the intimate Studio 2. The play is set in the West Wales childhood home of Menna, a phobic woman who returns home when she receives a disturbing letter from her aunt Iola declaring her intention to end her life. Iola has a tumour and is suffering from dementia and her twin sister Anest – Menna’s mother – is determined to accompany her and the younger woman is caught between the desire to intervene and the recognition that the bond between twins is often inexplicably deep.
The biggest pleasure for me came from the luxurious casting and the resulting sensational performances. Anna Calder-Maxwell touches the deepest part of the soul as Iola, a deeply affecting portrayal of how dementia ravages the mind yet still leaving flashes of the person intact and with Anna Carteret as her more sanguine twin, finds a profound, almost spiritual connection – their hermit-like existence doesn’t really matter as long as they have each other. Imogen Stubbs is also excellent as the daughter who can’t help but feel excluded by her mother’s closeness to someone else and so finds herself trapped in the neuroses of her partner and she plays the deceptive fragility of Menna perfectly, the genuine love in her heart shining through. Roger Evans is perhaps underused as the sole man of the piece, more often used to shift pieces of the set around than not, but even he finds a quietly moving place for his cuckolded policeman with an original take on how to play the board game Guess Who (plus he wears an extremely good looking beard).
I found the play to be surprisingly different from For Once in the way it was structured and written, but there was still a pleasingly interesting way in which sensitive subjects are dealt with. This isn’t a discursive piece on the pro and cons of assisted suicide but rather takes a more dreamlike tangent, working in references to Dylan Thomas and ancient folklore which are served beautifully by Chloe Lamford’s evocative design, and so becomes a rather strange but delicately interesting and quietly harrowing creature.