“Leap with me,” says the young husband (Edward Bennett), hoping to persuade his cautious wife (Leanne Rowe) to approve of the loan he’s taken out to finance his dental practice. There is surprisingly little literal leaping in this tender piece from physical theatre company Frantic Assembly, whose pieces usually intercut text with dynamic choreographed passages (as with co-helmer Steven Hoggett’s movement direction of touring hit “Black Watch”). In fact the biggest leap is the one auds are asked to make in accepting the lack of driving forward movement in the script by red-hot scribe Abi Morgan (“Shame,” “The Iron Lady”).
The high-concept premise is that the same couple is portrayed by Sam Cox and Sian Phillips over a few days late in life, and in their 20s and 30s by the younger actors. Each pair of actors almost always interacts only with each other, but all four are frequently on stage at the same time: the end of one scene overlaps with the next, and Morgan skillfully sets up plot points and themes in one frame that are supplemented or advanced by information provided in the other. Older Billy opens the fridge in his spacious middle-American kitchen, and out pops Margaret in a ’60s outfit, gleefully exploring the home they’re just moving into. Going through boxes of stuff from the attic, Maggie wonders why they ever needed those silly Chinese lanterns — and the lanterns then appear in a climactic scene in the earlier plot.
The story of one couple’s enduring but far from perfect relationship gradually emerges, which survives his addictive tendencies, temptations of infidelity on both sides, and an inability to have children that affects them both profoundly but differently. What flirts with, and sometimes succumbs to, melodrama is the crisis the older couple are facing, which becomes apparent via the accretion of details: Maggie’s frequent doctor visits, her inventory of the house’s contents, and the post-its she’s putting up everywhere.
Though verbally expressive of their feelings in younger life, the older couple find themselves unable to talk about what’s going on. Brief choreographed passages are where the emotional subtext is communicated. A sensual movement scene first performed by the younger couple is repeated late in the show, with older Billy lifting and caressing his wife in her younger incarnation. Most movingly, all four writhe in pain and grief on the same bed. But jacking up the volume of recorded music in these movement breaks feels emotionally manipulative and distrusting of the material’s power.
While the narrative focus is extremely tight, the story Morgan and co-directors Hoggett (“Once,” “American Idiot”) and Scott Graham are telling aspires to universality. The risk they take is that not every audience member will be equally interested in mapping this ordinary couple’s struggle with love, life, commitment and death onto their own concerns and experiences. The languorous pace and multiple false endings may also be a block to identification for some. But as the visual and narrative layers accrue — including beautiful video projections by Ian William Galloway of flocks of starlings and the Lascaux cave paintings, both details mentioned in the plot — it is hard not to feel affected by the sense of vital lived experience and loss the show conveys. This is not Frantic Assembly’s showiest work, but it affirms the company’s ongoing commitment to evolving the ways in which movement and text can work together to tell stories on stage.