“I thought you were decent. A decent man. Shows what I know.” Eighteen-year-old David (Alexander Cobb) is disgusted by Frank (Roger Sloman) who, he has discovered, is two-timing his wife with another woman. What makes it worse for David is that Frank is his 69-year-old grandfather. The strength of Luke Norris’ promising debut “Goodbye to All That,” the opener of the Royal Court Young Writers’ Festival, is that it moves rapidly beyond exploration of its unusual premise. Yet although the territory it inhabits is pleasingly unexpected, the intended emotional punch doesn’t quite land.
The play amounts to a series of confrontations spread over 15 fairly short scenes all springing from Frank’s feelings. Married to Iris (embittered Susan Brown) for 45 years, this working-class man has been having an affair with fairly merry widow Rita (Linda Marlowe). Having been found out, he decides to leave Iris. Faced with his grandson’s lack of understanding about his behavior, Frank urges him to settle for nothing but love: “Anything less is a waste of time.”
Yet time, it turns out, is not on his side because Frank almost immediately suffers a stroke that turns the initially suggested questions of love, understanding and allegiances on their head.
Although the play is tenderly concerned with the nature of caring in its widest sense, it is, defiantly, no sentimental journey. Anger is barely below the surface, especially in Brown’s furiously tight and frightened Iris, who is determined to wield the power suddenly thrust upon her when Frank becomes helpless.
Norris’ background as an actor shows through (in a good way) via the terseness of the dialogue that mirrors the bluntness of everyone’s feelings under pressure. But although he keeps stakes high throughout, not all the plot developments are equally well-handled. Certain scenes rise to a crunch point only to be suddenly cut off. Dramatic though this is, it also signals a weakness. Scenes of key decisions or changes of heart necessary to the characters’ emotional arcs are ducked.
That much is clear in the handling of David and Rita’s relationship. On first meeting, he is hateful toward her. Yet the next time they meet all is apparently well. That’s required in order to service a plot development but David’s complete shift is emotionally unconvincing. It’s symptomatic of writing that, structurally speaking, is stranded between TV-style plot-driven development and something more resonantly theatrical.
Simon Godwin’s production on Tom Piper’s neatly bald set is light on its feet but, uncharacterisatically, Godwin’s actors don’t always flesh out the exchanges, with specificity sacrificed to overemphasized rapidity. And the key relationship between Frank and Marlowe’s touching Rita is oddly undercut by an awkward physicality between them. That the production often overrides such flaws is a tribute to the writer’s potential.