(Michael Billinton’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/26.)
Ted Whitehead’s play caused a stir at the Royal Court in 1972 and has rarely been seen since. I can’t think why; as a portrait of domestic entrapment, it rivals Strindberg’s The Dance of Death. In Purni Morell’s impressively claustrophobic revival, we find ourselves close-up spectators of the unending war between a young Liverpool couple, Frank and Norma Elliott. What makes this such a painfully honest play is that Whitehead makes it clear it is a war no one can win, one that simply leaves its combatants in a state of despairing exhaustion.
Neither party can claim the moral high ground. Frank, who describes himself as an “apostolic alcoholic”, has a residual Catholicism but is prone to lacerating verbal tirades. Norma, while outwardly more controlled, is equally capable of vindictive attack and is not above using threatened suicide as a tactic. Whitehead’s ultimate point is that marriage, as we know it, is an institution no longer fit for purpose. While much has changed since the play was written, the vision of a couple bound together by a deadlocked, love-hate relationship still has potent currency.