“Would people recycle more, if there were bears?” Carol (Tessa Peake- Jones) asks her ex-lover Eddie (Andrew French). This flippant-sounding question contained within the opening scenes of Barney Norris’ nifty two-hander, While We’re Here comes in response to Eddie’s proposed plan of getting involved in “rewilding”: putting bears and wolves back into Scotland, or, in his words, pressing <undo> on all the havoc human nature has wreaked on the planet.
Carol knows, and we soon suspect, that Eddie hasn’t seriously thought through how he might achieve this revival of lost natural habitats, just as he hasn’t seriously thought through his desire to relive the past in his own life. While We’re Here is a snapshot of a momentary past between two people who briefly encounter one another in an unsustainable present. The script by Barney Norris (playwright of Five Rivers Met on a Salisbury Plain) explores two characters’ experience whilst questioning what it is that brings people together, and what pushes people apart.
A few hours before the play begins, Carol has found Eddie sitting on a park bench and offers him a place to stay. It initially seems unlikely that a woman with a job at the council –“team leader!” “is that as good as it sounds?” “pretty good, yeah”- her own house, and an adult daughter flourishing in a busy job somewhere slightly too far away for Carol’s comfort, would stretch to such hospitality; but Tessa Peake-Jones does a splendid job of negotiating a character who remains no more likeable than she is fathomable. Whatever it was that motivates Carol to take in a now homeless Eddie is the same as that which sparked their earlier relationship: an attraction between polar opposites.
Whilst Carol lives a life of routine – finally admitting, “I’m trapped, I can’t get out” – whose greatest achievement out of the London commuter-belt town of Havant has been to move to a nearby town and back again, Eddie has the alternative problem: too much space to move around in and nothing by which to draw defining lines around his life. Eddie’s first attempts to get help with his mental health – we are told he has suffered at least one mental breakdown and a suicide attempt – are frustrated by his inability to pin himself down. Physically he has no permanent address to which the authorities can send him letters; emotionally he cannot hold his thoughts in one place for long enough to fill out a form with any coherency. Displaced by his family, his country, and now his local community, Eddie is a character who taps into the national consciousness evoked around Ken Clark’s recent screenplay I, Daniel Blake (2016). One scene provides a sensitive and unrewarding battle with local bureaucracy in an attempt to secure financial and medical help, with a result which raises fleeting but vital questions about justice and responsibility.
Eddie’s experiences of mental ill-health are equally as challenging and uncomfortable to watch as they are poignant. Sometimes he is annoying, selfish, a procrastinator, thoughtless – or at least dedicates his time thinking about the “wrong” kinds of things: abstractions rather than practicalities, himself rather than his environment and the people around him. The audience, like Carol, are asked whether or not we can forgive him, like him, or help him. While We’re Here is based around the possibilities and limits of what Carol can do, even while Eddie does nothing (at least intentionally) for her in return. The difference between them is that, apart from her happiness, Carol has everything: a house, an income, a job, even some shapeless, baggy form of a family. And so it falls to her – the autocratic, competent, law-abiding Carol – to help Eddie, while it slowly becomes obvious to both her and to us that she can never help him enough.
The single problem with the While We’re Here is that the idea that these two people would have a connection resonates as implausible throughout most of the play. The sparkling repartee and energy between Tessa Peake-Jones and Andrew French never quite disguises the unbridgeable gap between their characters’ outlooks. It is Carol, finally, who articulates most convincingly both why they are drawn together and why they can never help one another escape their psychological prisons: “We’re both just feeling vulnerable”, she says, stepping away from Eddie and any hope of a happy ending. “I can’t”.
Holding the fort in a two-hander for just under ninety minutes is no mean feat, and both Tessa Peake-Jones and Andrew French do sterling work in keeping the pace going despite the oddly divided scenes which are broken up by semi-darkness, music, and unnecessary changes of clothes to convey time passing. They also do the very best with a script which at times strays into the melodramatic. It is easy to forgive the clunky excursions into the past to explain useful points of information given that Carol and Eddie’s relationship is built on reminiscence; slightly more jarring are the flowery metaphorical expressions of loneliness and the human condition that flow from the characters’ mouths in an attempt to make some kind of point which was already better conveyed through naturalistic interaction. Their physical interactions play out well on the intimate space of the Salberg theatre at the Salisbury Playhouse, as I’m sure is the case in the Bush Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Tobacco Factory where the Up in Arms company has previously played on tour. Forced into close proximity the two are forced to play out their interactions in physical and emotional negotiation.
The entire production is played out in Carol’s sitting room: a fittingly claustrophic space which frames and reflects her character. Being on home turf is a kind of advantage Carol holds throughout the play, despite giving her more to lose. If we imagine While We’re Here as a crossing of two trajectories then Carol certainly comes out on top. But with a husband who has walked out on her some time ago and a daughter who no longer comes home, Carol’s narrow life seems to be increasingly shrinking around the edges, descending towards a different kind of ultimatum from the one that approaches Eddie. In a final heartfelt scene, Carol has lost all of her meaningful relationships and is left dictating an email to her daughter who we can rely on not to provide anything like a sufficient reply.
Packed with staccato moments of comedy and never at risk of becoming a righteously issue-based play, While We’re Here nevertheless touches on a whole range of topical themes including mental health, bureaucracy, immigration and loneliness. Never are we lectured at, only asked to think again: to stop before making judgement so that we ourselves are not left wishing to press <undo>.
While We’re Here was performed for a brief run at the Salisbury Playhouse from 15th – 17th June 2017.