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'To Have and To Hold' review – Richard Bean's new comedy captures love, family and the ageing process

Read our three-star review of To Have and To Hold, starring Alun Armstrong and Marion Bailey, now in performances at the Hampstead Theatre to 25 November.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

It’s harder both to have and to hold as you get older and your grip on life starts to slip. That’s the situation in which we find Jack and Florence Kirk, the nonagenarian couple at the fond heart of this latest play from Richard Bean, whose One Man, Two Guvnors remains one of the breakaway pieces of new writing of modern times.

This play, unlike the previous one, has at least one foot in Bean’s own background (however fictionalised) and casts a keenly reflective eye on the ageing process. It’s bound to strike a chord with anyone who has watched loved ones start to deteriorate, and it seems well-attuned to a Hampstead Theatre audience that may well understand the prevailing dynamic even if they are less familiar day-to-day with the Hull accent.

The reality of senescence isn’t too happily embraced by Alun Armstrong’s splendidly splenetic Jack, a onetime cop who sees himself “in the finals” of life – a race where he is visibly struggling to keep up.

Confined largely to the reclining chair of his evocatively realised East Yorkshire home (James Cotterill’s design is ace, from the faded sofa onwards) he sits at the eye of a gathering familial storm to which he contributes a gust or two. Now and again he is seen making a recording of his life that gives Bean's rather diffuse narrative some sort of shape.

Jack is quick to snap at his wife of 70 years, Florence (the wonderful Marion Bailey), whose culinary choices don’t appeal – cauliflower cheese again? One of those conversationalists who conjoins everyone in her (often comic) struggle to remember a name, she drives Jack mad even as he is the first to turn to her for help.

The pair’s love, the odd bit of rancour notwithstanding, is never in doubt, and some of their banter has a vaudevillian’s bite: “Testicles,” says one. “No need to swear,” responds the other.

To Have and to Hold is at its best when it homes in on the sniping that arises naturally over time between people entirely beholden to the same traits with which they are exasperated. It’s no surprise that much is made about the tendency of longtime spouses to die relatively quickly one after the other, and Armstrong and Bailey communicate a shared depth of feeling with remarkable ease.

Bean has always had fun with language and lists, and so he does here, whether interrogating the difference between philatelist and Falangist or pondering the apparent contradiction of a fast snail; a Lassie-themed joke fully lands.

Elsewhere, this leisurely play feels on shakier ground, even with the arrival of a character, Rhubarb Eddie (the formidable Adrian Hood), whose trademark greeting, “How do”, is as singular as his Damon Runyon-esque name.

The introduction of criminality into the action doesn’t fully convince, nor does Jack’s legacy as a cop who may have interacted with his community in ways that in later life exist to haunt him.

The next generation is represented by the RP-speaking Rob (Christopher Fulford) and Tina (Hermione Gulliford), as the offspring who must chart a future for the same beloved parents for whom even opening the front door is an ongoing drama.

Two distinguished directors, Richard Wilson and a newer arrival to the venture, Terry Johnson, ground the material in a palpable recognition (and some nifty comic business involving a stair lift). Wilson has his own moving history with Bean dating back to this author’s terrific Under the Whaleback at the Royal Court some 20 years ago.

To Have and to Hold in that sense reprises a partnership surely rooted in the same palpable affection as the play. Now all it needs is a firmer sense of dramatic purpose and a bolder narrative spine.

To Have and To Hold is at the Hampstead Theatre through 25 November. Book To Have and To Hold tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: To Have and To Hold (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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