To Have and To Hold ★★★★ Hampstead Theatre | Until November 25, 2023

Middle-aged children with busy lives who are trying to cope with aged parents set in their ways – it's a scenario that will ring true for many in the audience. Richard Bean's portrait of this family dynamic walks a fine line between sentimentality and caricature and there are some terrific one-liners. Alun Armstrong and Marion Bailey are quite brilliant as a sparring elderly couple who are simultaneously amusing and oddly endearing. The two have been together so long that the niceties have gone out the window, and their affection, and fear of impending separation and death, have been distilled into a well-honed battle of wits that only appears to be uncaring. Into this almost hermetically sealed world, which their mother is constantly locking up, venture the couple's two adult children who have a naïve determination to do "the right thing." However, what they actually end up doing disrupts the delicate equilibrium of this hothouse environment. They accuse the good-hearted handyman/companion of theft, and in trying to deal sensibly with the parents' health and housing issues, they destroy the carefully constructed cocoon of familiarity and safety. The strength of this production is Bean's well drawn characters and sharp dialogues, but the plot construction needs work. Armstrong's long soliloquies about his cases as a police officer seem insufficiently connected to the narrative development, and the embezzlement story is flimsy, if not distracting. Fortunately, such drawbacks are more than compensated for by the extraordinary quality of the acting. The chemistry between Armstrong and Bailey is palpable and they ring true in all of their interactions. Christopher Fulford and Hermione Gulliford are also spot on as the pair of adult children who, while definitely self-absorbed, are also trying to integrate their filial responsibility into busy lives. When dealing with the parents, the two manage to strike just the right balance between affection and exasperation. Adrian Hood as "Rhubarb" Eddie brings a nice authenticity to a role in which it would have been easy to fall into parody. His camaraderie with his elderly neighbours is completely believable. To Have and To Hold offers a heartwarming, universal story exploring intergenerational incomprehension of the distinctive accommodations that are undertaken at different stages of life, while delighting with its masterclass in the art of performance.

Rated: ★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Marc Brenner

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