Life & Culture

To Have and to Hold review: Ageing and alienation with lots of gags

Much feels true in this play's observation about the indignity of old age and the caustic humour of long marriages


To Have and to Hold
Hampstead Theatre | ★★★★✩

The title, which is a bit like the old BBC warhorse Till Death Us Do Part, has more than a whiff of sitcom about it. So does the realistic set (designer James Cotterill) of an elderly couple’s living room.

If the reclining chairs suggests the presence of pensioners, the stair lift down which Alun Armstrong’s nonagenarian Jack Kirk descends at the speed of a wilting flower screams geriatric.

However, because this is a (loosely autobiographical) play by Richard Bean, the man responsible for the massive hit One Man, Two Guvnors, what emerges is far better wrought than most light entertainment.

Between the gags — and there are lots of them — a picture builds of a generation that relies on the kindness of acquaintances, and which is also at their mercy.

Without Florence’s niece Pam (Rachel Dale) and Rhubarb Eddie (Adrian Hood), a giant of a man who plies the Kirks with great bunches of the fruit from his allotments, there would be no visitors and little help with the shopping.

“We are the first generation who don’t see their kids,” declares Jack on the day his middle-aged children business woman Tina (Hermione Gullford) and novelist Rob (Christopher Fulford) have trekked up to Yorkshire to visit.

Death is near and Jack has summoned them to put things in order, and complain of course.

“If you keep coming at this rate you will see your mother five times before she dies,” he tells Tina.

The gap between parents and offspring here is not just geographical and generational, but educational. The children are rooted to their work while Jack and Florence are rooted to their home, a village in the Dales called Wetwang.

This is not the first play about generational differences. Take Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love which contrasts the wealthy retirement of baby boomers with the relative poverty of their grown-up children.

Bean’s play is closer to home. His father was a policeman and this play is written with more affection than anger.

I can imagine the Bean of 20 years ago tackling today’s generational divide by skewering today’s protest generation, perhaps for managing to stay ill-informed in a world where there is more access to information than ever before.

At the height of his powers during the Hytner years at the National, the playwright was also responsible for a delicious revival of Leon Boucicault’s Victorian farce in which he turned an antisemitic joke into a joke about antisemites.

There was also the riotous England People Very Nice which was populated by racial stereotypes as a way of lampooning British attitudes towards migration. It could never be made today. I miss that bravura.

Co-directed by Richard Wilson and Terry Johnson this hasn’t the urgency of past Bean plays. But in its observation about the indignity that goes with age, and the way love is expressed in long marriages through increasingly caustic humour, much here feels true.

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