As Peter Gill and Alice Hamilton co-direct the world premiere of this romantic portrait of London, which brings to life memories of youth and past love in Gill’s play Something in the Air, David Cottis went along to take a look.
Given that the theatre-going audience is already a minority (albeit one that punches above its weight in terms of the wider culture), it’s perhaps a little surprising that there are some writers who have a cult following even within that smallish group – playwrights with a hard core of fans who will affirm their virtues with the same fervour that music lovers will those of, say, the Silver Apples or Vashti Bunyan.
Cardiff-born Peter Gill is one such – despite a career as both writer and director that goes back to the ‘sixties, and takes in theatres like the Royal Court (where he reintroduced the plays of D.H. Lawrence to the British stage), Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, and the National Theatre Studio, he’s never become a household name, but retains a strong following – Michael Billington of the Guardian called him an ‘unsung hero’. Where some writers with cult followings sit at the maximal end of the spectrum, like Howard Barker, whose fans admire his plays for their ambition and bagginess, Gill, along with Robert Holman, is a minimalist, producing well-crafted miniatures, often domestic and sometimes autobiographical, with references to his own childhood in Splott or, in The York Realist (for me, his best play) his own experiences as a gay man coming out in the theatre of the early ‘sixties.. His plays often dramatize the tensions under ordinary lives – it’s not surprising that, along with Lawrence, the playwright he’s most associated as a director should be Anton Chekhov.
Being Welsh, gay, and (originally) working-class, Gill has always been a niche writer. Something in the Air, his latest play, directed by the author and Anne Hamilton at the intimate Jermyn Street Theatre in London, adds a new niche, that of age. The play deals with one of the largest, but relatively unseen, groups of modern British society – the generation born before and during the war, who are now outliving their physical faculties.
Two men in their late seventies, Alex (Christopher Godwin) and Colin (Ian Gelder), sit in a nursing home, and talk about their lives, mostly in London, from the ‘fifties through to the ‘eighties, Alex as a picture dealer, Colin a social worker who sat on government committees. As the play goes on, we realise that these are inner monologues, and that Alex is suffering from what might be Alzheimer’s, his present inarticulacy contrasting with his vivid accounts of life in fashionable, free-loving bohemia. Their memories bring on stage two younger actors, who we discover to be their great loves – Alex’s male lover Gareth (Sam Thorpe-Spinks) who tolerated his occasional flings with women as an ‘unfortunate tendency’, Colin’s more free-spirited partner, Nicholas (James Schofield), originally from the Welsh borders, who left for New York in the early ‘eighties – ‘Just at exactly the wrong time for a young attractive promiscuous homosexual.’
A newspaper headline places us just before the pandemic, so the two men have visitors – Colin’s niece Clare (a rather underused Claire Price) and Alex’s son Andrew (Andrew Woodall), whose shocked reaction to the men holding hands seems improbable in a middle-aged New Statesman reader, and who is unaware of his father’s bisexuality, at one point watching a film made by Gareth at the BFI, years later, and assuming from his parents’ awkward reaction that the director must have had an affair with his mother. Through these two, we discover that the two men have found a friendship – possibly a love, in the nursing home.
The monologues and memories intertwine with the present day, full of period and geographical detail, some of which may be autobiographical– Nicholas lives in Camden Town, Nicholas, like Gill himself, near Hammersmith. A knowledge of London, and of post-war social history, helps a lot – it’s the kind of show (and audience) where a reference to opera singer Kathleen Ferrier’s recording of ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ gets a laugh of recognition.
The published text opens with a quotation from Chekhov’s Three Sisters (in Gill’s own translation), about the idea that a person’s past life can be a first attempt, like an artist’s rough draft. Seen like that, Something in the Air is a play about second chances, and the possibilities, as well as the difficulties, of old age. The play ends with the two men alone together, in the high-backed chairs they haven’t left through the whole duration, sitting hand in hand, with the lines ‘Nice’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes’ ‘Yes’, a gentle affirmation that’s appropriate for this slight, short, touching play.
Something in the Air runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until November 12th. Tickets are available here.