‘[A]ll I could see was this generation of baby boomers who had the opportunity of going to university, did so, and then never came home’. So writes playwright Richard Bean, talking about the premise of To Have and to Hold, a play about Rob, a London-based writer, and Tina, a Somerset-based businesswoman, returning to see their nonagenarian parents in Hull. They are the first generation, the play points out, where their parents will live out the end of their lives without their children close by. Caring duties fall to Pammy, a cousin, and Rhubarb Eddie, a local who lavishes them with rhubarb in return for use of their allotment. When Rob and Tina find out that someone has been scamming their parents, they try to take action.

Yet what could easily become a straightforward mystery, or a soapbox tale about elder abuse, becomes much more than that. When Rob and Tina eventually find out who did it, there is no great sense of retributive justice. They murmur that the police are investigating; it’s a lie. Instead, their discovery is tinged with melancholy, because they cannot help but feel that it is their fault; as Pammy frequently tells them, they are never here to notice. The melancholy isn’t enough to be total regret – they have lives that they cannot abandon, jobs and families – but is the quiet sadness of generations suffering the cost of social change. The hangover of guilt leads them to jump to all sorts of conclusions – no, Eddie is not smuggling their father porn, he just accidentally turned on Naked Attraction – to make themselves the good guys in a story that is, we know, a lot more complicated than this. 

Top plaudits, though, must go to Alun Armstrong and Marion Bailey as parents Jack and Flo. Making cup after cup of tea and bickering back and forth inside James Cotterill’s detailed replica of their house, we get the strange melange of love, antipathy and claustrophobia that characterises so many long-running marriages. This laugh-a-minute banter suddenly turns to moments of real heart, like when Jack suddenly turns to ask Flo if she will wash him when he dies. Directors Richard Wilson and Terry Johnson do a good job of balancing humour and heart on what feels at times like a knife’s edge. If this production is guilty of anything, perhaps, it is mugging slightly too hard to the audience; the opening gag of Flo going up and down on a stairlift at painstaking speed when she can walk perfectly well is a good example of a moment that gets a laugh from the audience but belongs more in a Buster Keaton film than in this play, where it serves neither character nor plot. Yet most of the time that balance is struck beautifully.

A final point worth noting is that like the character of Jack, playwright Richard Bean’s father was a policeman, and all bar one of Jack’s anecdotes of his time on the force are really his. In a play which worries so much about the disconnect between generations and the loss of not just our parents but our memories and culture, it is moving to see those stories play to a full, laughing house, staying alive across both time and place.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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