Steve John Shepherd
Tessa Peake Jones
These days ‘family’ is a fluid concept. The married-for-life, 2.4 children model is a reality for fewer and fewer people, but is a polyamourous relationship really a viable alternative?
This is the set-up for the new play by Matt Charman. Maurice Pinder is a Lewisham scaffolder who has been in a relationship with caring but childless Esther for over thirty years. He is also in a relationship with the slightly younger, more spirited, Fay. And with Lydia, who is younger still. Oh and they all live in one big suburban house along with Fay’s son Vincent and Lydia’s baby Fergus.
Despite this unusual domestic setup, Charman takes pains to draw them as a normal family on every other level. They have their rules, their quirks and their customs (Tuesday is family dinner night and so forth) and their domestic arrangements, though idiosyncratic, seem to work just fine for them.
Even the arrival of a fourth woman, Rowena, young, pregnant and just out of an abusive relationship, doesn’t appear to rock the boat too much. Charman is an engaging writer and he succeeds in making the Pinders into a plausible family unit; the women, in particular, interact with one another in a believable way. He also throws out just enough information to make you understand, at least partially, why these women would submit to this odd set-up, with a rota not just for housework, but for who gets to share Maurice’s bed. Esther gets to play the maternal role she wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Fay gets to indulge her wild side while still having a financially and emotionally secure base to return to and Lydia gets to have a child without having to settle down, not in the conventional sense anyway. For young Rowena it’s clearly all about escape and safety.
As written by Charman, Maurice is a resoundingly ordinary bloke, not devastatingly attractive or intelligent, or even that charismatic; just a solid, decent man who offers the women in his life love and stability, albeit very much on his own terms. Larry Lamb’s performance emphasises this normality, though I think he needed to be just a little more suave and charming to make this scenario plausible.
Throughout the first half, Charman takes a very unjudgemental approach, slowing exploring how such a family might function and at times making it seem appealing in its own way. However he rather turns things upside down in the second half, with the arrival of sensible, cardigan-clad office manager Irene. This is a wife too far for the other women and the careful balance of their family is upset, probably irreparably so.
Though the play becomes messier as the family deteriorates, the chief pleasure of this work is in the writing; it’s full of unexpected observations and genuinely funny moments that catch you off guard. His characterisation can be a little broad: free-spirited Reiki healer Lydia was a bit too clichd for my liking but the relationship between the older women, Esther and Fay, was very well sketched. And the performances from all five women were subtle and engaging.