Ian Gelder, left, and Christopher Godwin in SOMETHING IN THE AIR Photo by Steve Gregson

IN BRIEF: Peter Gill’s ode to memory both comforts and unsettles, graced with two fine central performances

“Old age is no place for sissies”, as Bette Davis once said.

Our declining years, as we grudgingly relinquish our (previously taken for granted) independence can be uneasy and disconcerting. Peter Gill’s affectionate yet unsettling play SOMETHING IN THE AIR captures something of the deep trials and small pleasures of old age, while celebrating the lives of others who have intersected with their own.

As often in Gill’s work, it’s like catching glimpses of a narrative but through shards of a mirror, intersecting planes which require the audience to take significant leaps of faith and understanding to fully explore his work. The title aptly suggests the elusive quality of memory, and of this play itself.

This fusion – or perhaps confusion – of stories as they are woven in and out of the lives of our two main characters, social worker Alex and book dealer Colin, reveal secrets, lies, disappointments, hopes and fears. What Gill has done is to allow us to feel something of what it’s like for the memory to fade in terms of detail and linkage, to make us feel that disconnection/dislocation of memory.

Talking to each other, themselves, younger versions of themselves, and to unseen others, the two engage with their revelations, loves and losses. Drawing a vivid picture of London in the 50s and 60s, with Gill’s natural descriptive flair, their reminiscences come alive before us, as they fade in and out of their recollections. And they remember it all together.

Ian Gelder, previously seen as an enigmatic and brooding James Whale in Southwark Playhouse’s GODS AND MONSTERS in 2017, impresses here again as caring, discarded lover yet longtime friend Alex. Christopher Godwin as Colin moves in and out of lucidity with a grace all of its own, owning his inability to settle down as he works through a procession of lovers, both male and female. Both actors impress with their grasp of demandingly long passage of monologue, poetic and sensual in their detail, evoking a lost world of “less enlightened times”, as one of them puts it.

Of the relatives who come to visit them, Colin’s prejudiced and self-centred son is equally detached but on an emotional plane, “It’s my Dad”, he says, in a telling declaration of his detachment, only coming to life when concerned about what other might think. Alex’s niece embodies the more caring, understanding, progressive societal view, quietly challenging the heartless ignorance of her fellow visitor.

The two younger cast members play Alex and Colin in their younger years, although physically unconnected, efficiently describing the idealism of youth, although they get relatively little to do in the play.

What appears at first sight to be a very brief 65-minute running time proves just right, in the sense that the fragile world created by fractured remembrance would never have survived an interval.

Whilst itself proving a challenge, Gill’s wistful play eloquently gives voice to those many lives we each live, celebrates the joys and sadnesses, and salutes those facing the unknown. At the final curtain, the hoped-for soothing closure is disturbingly cut, reminding us of the uncertainty we all face as we near the end.

In considering the play, I did question whether its lack of stage action or physicality made it better suited to a non-visual medium, such as radio. However, upon reflection the physical presence of the two central performers, together with their quiet intimacy and that disturbing final curtain, made the need for this play to be presented on stage undeniable.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR played 13 October – 12 November at Jermyn Street Theatre, London

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