Time runs away. Life catches up. We must be slowing down.
British playwrights have done a fair bit of time-travelling recently. Mike Bartlett whizzed from ’67 to ’90 to 2011 in Love Love Love, while Earthquakes in London spanned a whopping 557 years. Abi Morgan’s Love Song flashed back half a century and, another of the Roundabout Season plays, Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs jump-cuts through a lifetime. There have been others: In Basildon’s rewind, Shivered‘s cut-up chronology, and, at a push, the past memories in Kieran Hurley’s Beats.
Aesthetically, this is a way of telling big stories without maxing out on plot; a sort of Butterfly Effect approach to Aristotlean tragedy. Politically and socially, it’s explained by uncertainty and fragility. Sometimes, it’s about explaining the present through the past. Elsewhere, it involves a cautionary glance forwards. These plays force audiences on Scrooge-like adventures, hoping to shake us out of our catastrophic habits. Or else, maybe, they seek some stability in the wide-angle lens that the tumultuous present can’t offer.
The latest timey-hopper is Nick Payne, who having already skipped between universes this year, now hauls us through the decades. Why? Well, probably because it’s a wee-tle bit sad and a wee-tle bit sweet. Sort of like this: :’-).
One Day When We Were Young starts in 1942, in a Bath hotel in middle of the Blitz. Leonard (Andrew Sheridan) leaves for war tomorrow, so he and girlfriend Violet (Maia Alexander) are spending the night together. She’s brought him presents: Bourneville and a book and one they don’t get to before, well, you know. Bow-chick-a-wow-wow. Unless that’s the third present…
Leonard’s brought her one as well: his grandmother’s watch, given to her in lieu of an engagement ring. Now Leonard’s giving it likewise. As a pre-proposal promise. ‘Keeps very good time,’ he says, and asks her – in a nervy, roundabout fashion – to wait for him. So far, so We’ll Meet Again.
And they do. In 1963. A rendezvous in Royal Victoria Path. Back in Bath. Only Violet hasn’t waited. Leonard became a Japanese prisoner of war – a fact Payne swishly glances off, though, by doing so, misses an opportunity to really delve into the meaning of time. She thought that was it and so married Jack, a comparatively well-off academic.
Their meeting is charred with regret and bitterness, explanations that don’t quite cut it. Time has moved on – there are washing machines and televisions and expressos and Wimpys now – but Leonard hasn’t. Nor, really, has Violet. Sheridan and Alexander age up, but their faces remain the same. ‘I had an image of you in my mind,’ says Leonard, ‘I clung to you’. To each other, they have remained perfectly preserved, encased in amber memories. Yet both have changed in the intervening years.
On the way to Shoreditch, I read a short story by Manuel Ayme, ‘Tickets In Time’, in which people deemed not to sufficiently contribute to society are forced to spend a certain portion of every month in limbo. One day they disappear into temporary non-existence, re-appearing at the start of the next month. Crucially, at this point, they don’t feel the gap in time. They don’t experience their absence. Like when you roll over in bed and roll back, having slept six hours in the interim. Only the world has moved on. Time has run away.
This is Violet and Leonard’s relationship: after 21 years of relative non-existence, they have to relearn everything about one another. Whether she still plays the piano. (She does.) Whether he still lives in London. (He doesn’t.) It’s an awkward trodden-toed encounter that culminates in an accusation, a shared cigarette and a melancholic parting.
They meet again again, in the present. Between each act, both change clothes and age themselves up with a new hairdo and accessories. (Apparently, everything changes but underwear.) Time has healed old wounds. Leonard has “moved on.” But life has caught up with them. Leonard’s smoking has left him coughing up blood – as his grandmother did before him.
After niceties, Violet hands him a photo of a 59-year old woman. He takes an age to twig that’s she’s their daughter. It’s a super moment that comes in waves: first, a gentle happiness that, despite their non-existence, there was always something between them – that the relationship wasn’t fruitless; then, an electric shock of anger – what gave Violet the right not to have told him until now? Sure, Payne tips into sentiment with an over-cooked sparklers-in-a-powercut moment, but generally he’s pretty delicate and restrained.
This is a really polished piece of writing, and Payne’s empathetic and diligent with his characters. Clare Lizzimore’s production is accomplished with delicate, tender performances from Sheridan and Alexander, both of whom negotiate the aging process deftly. (They’re helped by the production’s openness about it’s contrivance.) All of which, ensures that you watch with a lump in your throat and a wistful smile.
But it’s all so sodding certain. It knows exactly how it wants you to feel. Payne shoehorns loaded but arbitrary echoes and repetitions, so as to knit the pair together, destined for one another despite life deciding otherwise. Were there something to really chew over, that mightn’t be such a problem, but One Day When We Were Young is a vague consideration of time’s passing and life’s course, rather than after anything per se. In that, yeah, alright, it works, but, my god, it could use an injection of ambition and grit.