Pros: Fantastic actors. Some very funny moments.
Cons: A slightly flat, rushed ending.
If Only . . . is a short, succinct, and simple play. There are only two characters, so it was particularly unfortunate that the actress meant to play Nana in this production was taken ill just before the start of the run. Luckily, Alexandra Grierson stepped in assuredly to take on the difficult role (which involves a huge amount of dialogue) and did incredibly well considering the short notice! She was confident and compelling as the passionate and loquacious Nana. Although Grierson had her script with her on stage, she seemed to hardly need it. In fact, because the play itself is so concerned with the nature of fiction, it seemed fitting to have a script on display throughout. At one point, Nana wonders about the lives of the actors she watches on TV and considers what must it be like to be an actress. At this moment I would have loved to see the production acknowledge the real script in Grierson’s lap – although I can fully understand the difficulties faced in adapting their show so late in the day! Monty d’Inverno plays Nana’s son, the narrator of the story, who looks back over the years and shows us memories of times he spent with his mother. d’Inverno played his part very well, switching competently between his character as a young child and as a grown man. He also shifted fluidly between his roles as Nana’s son and the narrator; contentiously the same character yet subtly different. As narrator, he expressed his love for Nana with a touching straightforward tenderness that gave the play much of its emotional force.
If Only . . . is a rather limited play. There is no action, no scale; the setting does not change and nothing really happens. Yet the narrator acknowledges all of this at the beginning, because this is not really meant to be drama, it is meant to be real life. The characters are both universal and unique. Nana has plenty of quirks and individual foibles, but she is also easy to recognise as a universal mother figure. As such, it is impossible not to identify with the parent-child relationship: the good natured arguments and the love underpinning everything between them, shining through even when Nana is scolding her son. It is a very funny show, and a lot of the comic moments come from the audience recognising and acknowledging those universal, everyday exchanges between family members.
The narrator is presented as a version of the play’s author, Michel Tremblay, and it seems that Nana is a tribute to the writer’s own mother. Nana is a woman of passion and energy, a teller of stories, and the woman who taught her son to create and appreciate fiction. The tragedy here is that she did not live to see his success as a playwright. The purpose of the play is to remedy this. The narrator tries to use the play to create a space where his mother can stop worrying about her son and where he does not have to watch the suffering and illness of the mother he adores. This, the play claims, can be achieved in theatre if not in real life. This is the magic of storytelling, the triumph of theatre. And yet, I couldn’t quite believe it. The scenes showing everyday conversations between mother and son were moving and interesting. But when the narrator stepped forward to change the course of the play, I found it hard to accept. I believed in the realness of the characters too much to accept the idea that fiction can change fact. Because of this, the ending felt to me rushed, unconvincing, and less compelling than the rest of the play.
Author: Michel Tremblay
Translators: Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman
Director: Stephen Whitson
Producer: Rare Moustache and First Light Theatre
Booking Until: 11 January 2015
Box Office: 0333 666 3366