Oh, the sheer Britishness of it all. This is a play about our national character – our reticence, our inhibitions, our general inability to convey our emotions or to tell people what we actually want to tell them. There’s even talk of the Archers and Jaffa Cakes.
One Day When We Were Young is a two-hander, written by Nick Payne in 2009 and revived here. It follows Leonard (Joseph Ryan-Hughes) and Violet (Laura Mugford) through three separate stages of their lives.
When we first meet them, they are living in Bath during the Second World War. Leonard is preparing to head off to fight, and he and Violet are in the throes of a youthful love affair. While Violet retains a youthful optimism and slightly naïve view of the world, Leonard is frenetic, terrified of what is to come and seeking reassurance that his lover is not going to desert him for somebody else before he returns. Reassurances given, they head to bed but are rudely awakened by the flash and noise of bombs – part of a lowkey and effective sound design by Connor McCrory, who also directs this production.
Leonard takes charge and urges a reluctant Violet out of the hotel they are staying in, down into a shelter. The impact of this bossiness on Leonard’s part is never explicitly explained, though eagle-eyed watchers may pick up on a hint towards the end of the play.
Much of the production relies on what is left unspoken in Payne’s script. After the initial scene comes to its dramatic conclusion, we fast forward to a middle-aged Leonard and Violet who are, alas, not married or together. The awkwardness is palpable, the initial chemistry from Ryan-Hughes and Mugford all deliberately gone. They struggle to work their way up to discussing what they know must be discussed – why didn’t they marry? We keep our ears out for clues, and – in an understated way – this scene is the most heartbreaking of the three we see.
In the final scene, with Leonard and Violet both in old age in 2002, their wry and gentle humour remains key as they talk about everything except their relationship and their lives. Both performers are excellent at capturing the essence of old age, with Ryan-Hughes in particular outrageously good as an elderly man. The development of Mugford’s character is impressively played too, as she delivers the role in a way that enables us to see that she is recognisably the same person, despite the impact of time passing and the events of her life.
Ultimately, this is a play encapsulated by its final moments – poignant, with a quiet sadness and dignity, and a continuing reluctance to say what needs to be said.
Written by: Nick Payne
Directed by: Connor McCrory
Designed by: Laura Mugford
Produced by: Just A Regular House
One Day When We Were Young plays at Barons Court Theatre until 3 June. Further information and bookings can be found here.