Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Theatre review: Trestle

Although it's discovered some great plays over the last few years, the Papatango Prize winners tend to suggest the judges favour pretty bleak stories. So Stewart Pringle's Trestle feels like a bit of a change of pace, a gentler, more ambiguous play about barely-a-relationship between two pensioners. Widower Harry (Gary Lilburn) is the chairman of a "local improvement" committee in a small Yorkshire town, and every Thursday afternoon they meet at the local community centre. Denise (Connie Walker) is more recently retired, and has booked the next slot to teach a Zumba class for seniors. She meets Harry while he’s still clearing up after his meeting and, after an awkward misunderstanding where he mistakes her for the cleaner, helps him fold the trestle table. Over the next six months or so they meet for a few minutes like this every week, soon timing their arrivals and departures to make sure they don’t miss each other.

Cathal Cleary directs, on a Frankie Bradshaw set evocative of a run-down community centre where the kitchen and, eventually, even the bathroom is permanently out of order; it’s a sort of limbo space reflecting the time in-between actual events when the pair always meet.

Lilburn and Walker help make this a very sweet friendship that you quickly root for, albeit one where the two aren’t always on the same page: Harry at first thinks this is a potential romance, and is put out when he finds out Denise has a husband she hasn’t mentioned before. This is because among other things, Trestle is about how the passing of time can be deceptive about how well we know someone – although the story takes place over several months, the actual amount of time the pair spend together probably isn’t that much longer than the play’s running time.

This misjudgement about how well they know each other leads to what moments of conflict there are in a play that’s largely an uneventful character piece: When Denise considers joining Harry’s committee she discovers it’s a reactionary group more interested in keeping the area pretty than actually improving anyone’s lives; this does work out for the best as her criticism makes him reconsider that maybe he is guilty of NIMBYism, and that the committee may no longer be the healthy use of his time it once was.

Trestle is a great example of making a little go a long way. The two characters’ dialogue mostly consists of small talk, but there’s a lot of sadness and personal history conveyed through it and the performances suggest a lot of depth. Like the characters themselves, we’re only privy to little snatches of their personalities, leaving a lot up to interpretation. This ambiguity is best seen in the play’s coda, which leaves it up to the audience to decide in what way their relationship changed after the events of the play*. Contrary to Harry’s initial instinct, these aren’t really two people who should be in a romantic relationship, but everyone involved makes you want them to find a version of their friendship that works.

Trestle by Stewart Pringle is booking until the 25th of November at Southwark Playhouse’s Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Robert Workman.

*yes, like one of the audience in the Q&A after tonight’s show, I also considered the “Harry’s died” interpretation, although as one possible option rather than the obvious meaning

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