Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Goodbye to all That, Royal Court

Review: Goodbye to all That, Royal Court

It’s saying something when, fifty minutes into a young playwright’s debut, you can feel let down by a particular scene. Luke Norris demonstrates such an acute understanding of theatre’s ability to rattle your spine that, when he slips a mawkish little song and dance sequence into Goodbye To All That, you immediately want to remonstrate. “No!” I scribbled in the moment, “you’re much, much better than that.”

Admittedly Norris isn’t always in complete control and he raises a number of ideas without following through to fruition, but he has come up with several sequences that knock wind out of you like a well-aimed punch to the kidneys.

Take the Santa hat that’s plonked on an elderly stroke-victim or the firm pinch to stop him tugging out his cannula. These are heavy moments, horrific and hard to watch, but deeply human and complex. They’re match by dawning realisations that creep up behind you and leave you utterly slack-jawed and horrified. (To reveal would, of course, be to ruin them.)

At sixty-nine, more than half a century after they first met, Frank has decided to leave his wife Iris for his mistress Rita. Pumped with Dutch courage, he ends up having a stroke and is taken into intensive care and, later, an NHS hospice. Rita’s got the money to get him into private care (at a cost of £3,300 per month), but Iris isn’t about to give up her husband without a fight – much to the disapproval of her teenage grandson, David. Set in Romford, Goodbye To All That is brilliantly programmed alongside In Basildon; two more women feuding over a man in a hospital bed. At least this time, he’s the property they’re fighting over.

There’s so much going on here that Norris’s play doesn’t have a central thrust, preferring instead to flit from one subject to another. Politically, it goes after the stretched NHS, in which Frank’s poor health gradually gets worse and worse due to neglect. Those rich enough to afford private care, meanwhile, have a significantly higher chance of recovery.

If there’s an ounce of naïve idealism in this, it’s curious, because elsewhere Norris is particularly attuned to the grey complexities and compromises of reality. Where eighteen year-old David is steadfast and absolute, his elders have a more pragmatic approach. Iris knows you’ve got to be cruel to be kind, hence the pinch, Rita understands that love sometimes means sharing, and Frank’s humility and open fear shows up his grandson’s bullish invulnerability.

This is all part of the natural rhythm of life, which Norris paints in rather glib colours. Just as the scales are tumbling from David’s eyes, his grandfather is releasing that he’s lived a lie. Adulthood, as Norris conceives it, is nothing but a matter of fitting in with social norms; only in childhood and old age are we truly able to be ourselves and act according to our own desires.

And yet such independence doesn’t suit the rest of us and it’s startling to note the change in attitude towards Frank after his stroke when, unable to express himself beyond attempting to prevent pain, he sits staring at a television screen from which Dick and Dom blare out. “You’re not offering much to the relationship these days,” jokes David, “Bit of dribbling, but…” He wipes the spittle from his grandfather’s mouth, relishing the chance to demonstrate his maturity. It’s a horrifying moment to watch, doubly so, given the cheer with which David enters into banter. Frank just stares out. This is how we prefer our old folks, not shagging away, but shagged out, waiting for death.

Norris is clearly a promising talent. Once or twice, he pulls something astonishing out of the bag, such as Frank’s advice to his grandson: “You break heads if you need to and hearts if you have to…” Simon Godwin’s production is perfectly adequate and, like the performances, seems designed to let the writing showcase itself. Susan Brown plays a stern forward-defensive as Iris, while Linda Marlowe’s Rita is the soft cheese to her chalk. Roger Sloman is crushing when incapacitated; though he can’t express it, you can see traces of muscle tension that betray Frank’s terror and embarrassment.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

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