Review by Daz Gale
Hampstead Theatre are in the midst of an exciting season with some hotly anticipated new productions arriving in the run up to Christmas. The first big hitter of the season is the world premiere of a brand new play by Richard Bean, the writer of One Man, Two Guvnors. With an unbelievable legend co-directing it, there is much to be excited about with the arrival of To Have and To Hold? But would this winning team lead to a happy marriage?
To Have and To Hold is centred around 91 year old Jack and his (supposedly) long suffering wife Florence. After 70 years of marriage, their constant bickering has turned into all out warfare. The arrival of their two children disrupts their surprisingly peaceful life as they attempt to make plans for the future, whether it is for the benefit of their parents or not.
Richard Bean’s writing is mixed, to put it mildly. It gets off to a good start as it sets up the main characters with some hilarious gags, most of them visual. The first 5 minutes in general set an unrealistically high bar for the show as we got to know the essential premise before events started unravelling, That is one of the problems with the show as it then struggled to reach that initial momentum. The laughs continued sporadically to varying degrees of hilarity but the hit rate started to decrease and certain lines fell flat.
This play is more than a series of throwaway laughs, however, and that is another one of the huge failings. The question on how older people are treated in society and often have their feelings disregarded by their children could have been fleshed out further. Instead, the result is a confused affair which doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say or what side of the fence it falls on. The initial exposition of the characters leads to unsatisfying developments, with Jack the only character who seems to get a substantial back story. The rest of the characters feel rather one-dimensional which, in turn, struggles to connect with a large chunk of the audience.
Another huge issue I had with the writing was in some of the outdated, ignorant and inexcusable language used. Homophobic slurs are littered throughout the piece – to use it as an argument that this is true to what an older generation might say isn’t good enough. While there is one instance of Florence’s son explaining to her how her language is inappropriate, it is then quickly disregarded for all future instances in dialogue that is wholly unnecessary, especially for a brand new piece of writing that uses this language for seemingly nothing more than a cheap laugh. Mild racism and ableism are also alluded to throughout in a play that is most definitely not of its time, and should have never been included in the writing.
The direction from Richard Wolson and Terry Johnson is also mixed. While the main action is directed to a great effect, this is undone by some clunky and clumsy transitions which kills momentum and takes you out of the story. Perhaps they are limited by the problematic writing but the pacing is often a problem throughout To Have And To Hold with certain choices seemingly plodding along with no real sense. James Cotterill’s set design beautifully recreates the scene of the home we may recognise from our own parents or grandparents, almost stuck in time with no internet or current technology, it is full of great details with a stairlift providing comic relief.
The greatest element To Have and To Hold has going for it is its miraculous cast. Alun Armstrong is a revelation as Jack Kirk, brilliantly conveying the complexities of being a 91-year-old, feeling like you have no purpose in life anymore. He gives a versatile performance, showcasing his strengths as an actor, with an unrivaled knack for comic timing mixed in with several more poignant moments including a truly powerful and moving dialogue, performed stunningly. Though her character has less back story, Marion Bailey is a marvel as Jack’s wife Florence. Instantly loveable, she manages to make overblown aspects of her character come across naturally. Together, Alun and Marion have a gorgeous chemistry that leaves you believing they really have been married for 70 years.
The remainder of the cast suffers from seemingly being afterthoughts in the writing. Though the story is focused on Jack and Florence’s children coming home, we don’t learn much about them or how their parent's declining health has affected them. Christopher Fulford has a few good comic moments as Rob Kirk but never quite manages to nail the more serious tone towards the climax while Hermione Gulliford gives a solid performance as Tina. The cast is completed by a drastically underused Rachel Dale as Pamela and a scene-stealing turn from Adrian Hood as Eddie, which left me longing to see more of him.
To Have and To Hold has a lot of potential. However, its problem lies in its deeply flawed execution. Inconsistent writing that feels like it is still not a final draft leads to issues with the tone of the story, a real disconnect in the themes that are at play, and pacing problems throughout. It may think it’s being clever by using inappropriate language in a story about people from another generation but in fact, it just comes across as mean-spirited and unnecessary. For a show that has only just been written, it feels inexplicable how outdated it manages to be in its writing. Surely in 2023 we are better than including a throwaway bit of homophobia for an uncomfortable laugh? If you really think it is needed in your show, it really isn't.
Despite all of these issues, the show does have some decent things going for it with some truly great bits of dialogue and a lot of laughs, particularly in the beginning, as well as stunning performances from Alun Armstrong and Marion Bailey. Unfortunately, its flaws outweigh its strengths. With a bit more fine-tuning, I believe this could be a far more well-rounded and strong story, but in its present form, it is not there yet.
To Have and To Hold plays at Hampstead Theatre until 25th November Tickets from www.hampsteadtheatre.com
Photos by Marc Brenner