At first, the interwoven monologues of a husband and wife recounting key moments from their long marriage may appear comfy and cosy. The audience awaits snuggly, hearthside confessions spoken from well-worn chairs, those symbols of contented domestic bliss. From these companionable perches, you may imagine many a paper has been read, pipes smoked, socks darned. Yet as the recollections progress, a more troubling toxicity arises, a real force of malice and fury. The characters grow more agitated and restless. It may not be love that ultimately binds the couple but mutually sustained hatred and acrimony. Writer Mark Bastin does not shy away from the darker aspects of long-term relationships in this production from New Troubadour Theatre. In a more open age, perhaps the participants would not have to suffer each other’s company indefinitely. Dennis and Gina, even before the critical incident that kickstarts the play, were helplessly enmeshed in cycles of something approaching mutual sadomasochism. 

Credit: Cristian Solimeno

Dennis, imperturbable on the surface, a paragon of virtue in his devotion to his wife’s care following a stroke, harbours a well of profound vengeance in his heart. He would never recognise it as such, but its malevolent facade peeks out. His declaration of the marriage vow that gives this work its title is wielded with sinister undertones of control and righteousness. His wayward wife is finally helpless under his care, unequivocally beholden to him. His tragic oversight is to be unconscious of the fact that Gina has felt trapped ever since his proposal and the first time he ever called her his lovely wife, with his fixed certainties that she would embrace her destiny as mother. 

Part of the immediate post-war generation, Dennis and Gina meet at a dance-hall, that most paramount social venue of the era. Dennis, shy and sweet, is dazzled by the brash, vibrant, confident Gina, a vivid erotic force that both compels and repels the less experienced boy. It is these initially attractive qualities that he would prefer later to ignore once they are married, as if Gina should settle into a more conventional role, neglecting to understand that they are central to her being. His memory of Gina convincing her family to skinny dip on holiday hovers between admiration and resentment. Gina struggles against the stifling definition of wife and mother, acting out her frustrations and indignity through a series of adulterous flings. It’s clear that the family has been damaged and distorted by these indiscretions, never confronted or resolved. 

It’s a bit maddening as a modern audience to sit idly and watch as a female character appears to be punished and demonised for daring to think/act outside tradition. Difficult to shake off is the idea that Gina has been ascribed a debilitating condition as form of chastisement for her transgressions. That Dennis is never once taken to task, self-satisfied in his assumptions, is indicative of his times. Would it ever occur to him to ask his wife what she may really want? Does he bother to sense his complicity in his wife’s actions? Assign blame to himself?  Her children, as well, nurse their displeasures, unable to see outside their own bitterness as adults at perceived grievances. 

Credit: Cristian Solimeno

Susan Graham brings Gina to thrilling dimensional life, pulsing with vitality. Without ever compromising the more disagreeable features – a flair for cruelty and selfishness – she makes Gina sympathetic. An audience feels keenly the weight of constraint upon her, her instinct to rebel, the conflicted feelings towards family, the erasure of her self. She is indeed living a full life even entombed in an unresponsive body, shatteringly aware. The locked-in condition does not dull her withering observations. She refuses to the last to accept the diminishing  parameters of her options. The restricted set, with just a few furnishings, is a brilliant psychological reflection of her constricted circumstances, severely limiting her movements. 

Mark Steere seems ill-at-ease as Dennis (at least at the performance I attended), a bit unfocused and stumbling over lines. It wasn’t as distracting as it might be, as you could excuse the awkwardness as the legacy of the exhaustion of a caretaker. It may be that Dennis just isn’t as exciting a character as Gina. He exalts his ordinariness and even-tempered, placid nature. He indulges routine. He possesses not even a fraction of the volatile charisma of his wife, nor is he nowhere near as truthful about himself as Gina, failing to acknowledge the enmity churning away under his congenial exterior – or being so fearful of it he turns away from the glare.

Credit: Cristian Solimeno

Director Finlay Glen goes full-throttle into pushing inside the more unsavoury aspects of the material, suggesting the work is less a rosy portrait of a caring and supportive relationship weathering hardships than it is a prolonged psychodrama – a dreary but charged and fascinating chronicle of dysfunction. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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