The Donmar Warehouse’s season at the shoebox-sized Trafalgar Studios aims to shine a light on the talents of its resident assistant directors. It gets off to an impressive start with Hamish Pirie’s tactful, gentle production of “Salt, Root and Roe,” a drama about a pair of septuagenarian Welsh twins, one of whom has Alzheimer’s. Tim Price’s second play draws us into the eerily beautiful North Pembrokeshire coast, and while it traffics heavily in symbols and maritime metaphors, and leaves a few too many plot points dangling, it has a winning tenderness.
Identical twin sisters Iona (Anna Calder-Marshall) and Anest (Anna Carteret) live together in a farmhouse by the sea. Their father used to joke that he was a merman, and the script is punctuated with interludes of underwater fantasy. When we first glimpse the old ladies, they are playing a game with a jumprope, winding it around their waists and hands, and reeling each other in. It’s an emotionally charged image, evoking the ties that bind them.
So strong is the siblings’ connection that when Iona, who is fast sinking into dementia, decides she wants to die, Anest (played with an empathic warmth by Carteret) resolves not just to assist her, but to join her in a suicide pact. Anest’s nervy daughter Menna (Imogen Stubbs, touchingly despondent) arrives in panicked response to a farewell letter from her aunt. Will she respect their wishes, letting them go gently into that good night together?
Menna has always felt left out by her mother’s bond with her aunt, and it gradually emerges that she has other problems, too. Her OCD-suffering husband, obsessed with cleanliness, likes her to wear latex gloves and routinely burns their clothes on a bonfire.
Calder-Marshall thoroughly inhabits her role, capturing Iona’s increasing befuddlement and vulnerability, as well as her despairing rage, with an unflinching honesty. Chloe Lamford’s design, with its bulging sails hanging overhead, brings to mind a ship’s rigging, as well the billows the sisters are set on wading into, their pockets weighed down with stones.
If “Salt, Root and Roe” occasionally verges on the studiedly whimsical, Price finds moments of sprightly, eccentric comedy in the women’s predicament (Iona absent-mindedly drops Menna’s mobile phone into a brimming teapot). The character of Anest could be more finely drawn, and the relationship between Menna and Anest is undeveloped; this might have been a play about mothers and daughters, as much as sisters and the travails of old age. And it’s distinctly fishy that we never see anyone do something as simple as call a doctor. But the play envelops you in its lulling, dreamy rhythms, and proves moving in unexpected ways.