“Johnson’s blazingly thunderous denunciation will almost certainly ring true with any woman who’s had to endure sharing a table with some whining piss-artist of a boyfriend.”
This one-hour, two-handed bittersweet drama consists of consecutive playlets, based on two poems by Christopher Reid. The first, A Scattering (which won the Costa Prize in 2009) is based on the author’s reaction to the death of his wife. A widower, who looks back over his marriage and his late wife’s life and death as he sorts through boxes of mementoes, is played with his trademark line in wistfully crumpled charm by Robert Bathurst (Cold Feet, Toast of London, Downton Abbey). Rebecca Johnson (Call the Midwife, Fleabag, Casualty) strikingly evokes his late wife, who comes back to walk hand-in-hand with him as he remembers past holidays on Crete and the discovery of the cancer that would kill her. Whilst a lyrical piece of verse drama at heart, with soaring glimpses of poetry amidst the pithy dialogue, the panache and erudition of the performers delivers all the pace, light and shade required of a tear-jerking drama. Some of the most poignant grief-stricken lines come in Bathurst’s monologues, when he is left alone again with his memories and keepsakes, soliloquising in the solitary nights upon his status as a ghost in his own house.
For the second half of the show, we quickly and seamlessly segue into The Song of Lunch, a light-hearted romp portraying a boozy midday date between a washed-up poet and an old flame who meet in a seedy Italian restaurant in Soho. Bathurst’s poet gleefully evokes the literary London of his youth as he makes his way to the venue, only to find it in sad decline – rather like the publishing industry to which he has devoted his life. His early apprehension about meeting his old lady friend evaporates as she (Johnson) arrives in all her confident and glamorous glory as the wife of an old – and far more successful – literary friend. Bathurst’s portrayal of the poet’s glass-by-glass decline into a self-pitying alcoholic stupor is a joy to behold. As a result, Johnson’s blazingly thunderous denunciation of him – and his awful poetry – will almost certainly ring true with any woman who’s had to endure sharing a table with some whining piss-artist of a boyfriend.
Whilst the thoughtfully introspective first half of the show might perhaps lend itself more naturally to a smaller and more intimate venue, the actors easily fill the gilded classical splendor of the Assembly Room Music Hall. The sparsely furnished set is unobtrusively enhanced by back-projected and lightly animated sketches by Charles Peattie. Originally two hours in length when it premiered in London in 2020, this one-hour Fringe version loses none of the impact in Jason Morrell’s tightly-staged production.