Eroded by dementia, Iola’s mind has lost its sharpness in the same way as the pebbles she collects from the beaches of south west Wales with her twin sister Anest. The stones will eventually fill their pockets as the two women clacker down the beach, conjoined with a skipping rope, and wade into the cold Irish sea to die.
They leave behind Anest’s daughter Menna, wittering about dogs as she dishes out the stones, having spent the past few months caring for them like a parent of toddlers.
Tim Price’s play, his second after For Once earlier this year at the Hampstead Studio, tackles the emotions of all this before the ethics. At its best, it is agonising and familiar, but several times it finds itself becalmed. It is a play of chronological snapshots, windows on the world of others, rather than one of narrative drive. Individually, they can be devastating – as when Iola grows aggressive in her disorientation – but together the whole is somewhat tideless. It’s possible that this is intentional – a reflection of the drawn out, unpredictable nature of dementia – but it saps the energy of a piece that could have been more than just promising. Without real narrative development, Salt, Root and Roe drags in parts, despite Hamish Pirie’s strong, simple and unobtrusive direction.
Nonetheless, Price is very strong on both atmosphere and character. Helped by Chloe Lamford’s design – a breaking wave that sometimes glows to become icy veins – he unnerves from the very first moment. Iola and Anest, tethered together, twirl and babble with one another like a pair of Wyrd Sisters. They have an infantile quality, a pair of wrinkled schoolgirls in duffle coats, matched by Imogen Stubbs’s Menna, her voice a cloying gurgle. Menna’s OCD – which Stubbs often lets slip – only furthers this childishness.
Price’s point – and it’s well embedded beneath the action, never directly outed – is a reminder of our place within nature and, as such, the surety of our individual demise. That’s treated delicately, still horrendous, but also comforting and, as the elderly twins stride into the sea, their dignity remains wholly intact.
It helps that it’s strikingly performed. Anna Calder-Marshall catches the stuttering of Iola’s synapses beautifully, such that she seems to stall and splutter like a clapped-out car engine. When words escape her, its as if she tries to wretch them up only to come out with a nugget of startling eloquence. Yet, like a cornered animal, she is as capable of forcefulness as of frailty. As her sister, Anna Carteret is outwardly serene, but lets slip a hollowing grief beneath that must be kept in check.
Stubbs, too, is strong, frayed at the edges and seemingly awkward in her own skeleton, but with a constant amiability. In spite of the vulnerability, Stubbs lets you see how hard Menna’s trying to be tough. She’s weepy, but never actually weeps, just as Price’s play is brittle, but never actually breaks.