THE JOURNEY TO VENICE – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – you may need tissues for this

Annabel Leventon and Tim Hardy, photograph by Simon Annand


by Bjørg Vik

translated by Janet Garton

Directed by Wiebke Green

Finborough Theatre, London – until 25 March 2023

Almost more moving than the depiction of a very old married couple eking out a existence in genteel poverty, which takes up most of this award-winning Norwegian play, is the small act of kindness that briefly transforms the lives of Edith and Oscar at the very end of Bjørg Vik’s quietly devastating study. In Janet Garton’s elegant translation, matched by Wiebke Green’s delicate but unsparing direction, Vik’s 1992 play emerges as a melancholic yet comical contemplation on the vicissitudes and challenges of decades long relationships, and the half truths and fantasies humans treat themselves to in order to make difficult lives bearable.

When we first encounter the Tellmans on Kit Hinchcliffe’s realistically homely but rundown set, starkly appointed and lit, they seem like a pair of amiably off-the-wall former academics, she spritely, he almost blind. They are worldly, witty, with a welter of mutual affection and minor grievances. Annabel Leventon and Tim Hardy invest them with so much detail and warmth that it’s hard to believe they’re not married in real life. Slowly the realisation dawns that they are living in the most financially straitened of circumstances, something Leventon’s luminous, troubled Edith is doing her best to keep from Hardy’s endearing Oscar, who is already plagued with guilt at not being able to give his wife the retirement she deserves, that the bills are piling up and she’s started selling off artworks and books to make money.

Almost more touching still, is the fact that this eccentric couple periodically go off on “journeys” without leaving home, whereby they run cinefilms of global locations visited when younger, while eating food from such places and wearing makeshift costumes. It’s a little bit of light in otherwise pretty dark existences. The play’s title derives from one such travelogue, where tensions and petty jealousies within their relationship are laid bare.

There are shades of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the subplot of a lost child, except that where Albee is mostly bile and bitterness, Vik is a deep well of sadness. When young plumber Christopher arrives (Nathan Welsh, utterly adorable) to sort out some domestic maintenance, Edith alights on him as a possible yet unattainable child substitute, and he finds himself at first unwillingly, but then with charmed enthusiasm, drawn into their gentle fantasy world. The contrast of Christopher’s straightforward, laddish bonhomie with the neediness of the Tellmans is heartbreaking, and it is he who, in the play’s final moments, throws some much needed joy, or at least relief, into their lives, but in a completely practical way. It’s a lovely, tear-inducing moment.

More light is provided by the arrival of a new home help (Charlotte Beaumont, winningly gauche) who bursts in like a cyclone of good intentions and sheer physical clumsiness. The balance between bleakness and little chinks of comfort is exquisitely managed throughout.

Ultimately, this is a deeply depressing play on many levels, but it is a quietly powerful one, suffused with an aching longing for better years gone by. Furthermore, for all its unflinching honesty about the difficulties of getting older, it has an innate belief in the fundamental kindness within flawed humans, and that is something to celebrate and savour. Green’s production packs a lot into seventy five minutes, almost more than can be taken in during such a short duration, but it is a feast of fine acting. Brief but with a lingering aftertaste.


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