To Have and to Hold at the Hampstead Theatre review: a patchy generational culture-clash comedy

From left, Marion Bailey, Christopher Fulford and Alun Armstrong in To Have and To Hold (Marc Brenner)
From left, Marion Bailey, Christopher Fulford and Alun Armstrong in To Have and To Hold (Marc Brenner)

Richard Bean’s latest play is a patchy, partly-autobiographical Yorkshire sitcom about death and generational shift. It’s directed with more sense of mood than purpose by Richard Wilson and Terry Johnson. And it features a delicious if not entirely credible performance from Alun Armstrong as Jack, a 91-year-old ex-copper grumpily railing against his life, his wife Florence (Marion Bailey) and his upwardly mobile son and daughter.

The plot is vestigial, only there to support a series of running gags, acrimonious banter, shaggy dog stories and standalone jokes that feel even older than Jack. It’s entertaining enough, with moments of pathos, but feels sketchy and unfinished. The ending, which takes place during lockdown, descends into cliché.

It begins when Rob (Christopher Fulford) and Tina (Hermione Gulliford) return to the chintzy home in Wetwang – yes, it’s a real place – that university educations helped them escape. Rob became a writer of crime novels and movies and uses words like “bailiwick” and “appellation”. Tina runs a chain of private GP practices. Jack, an old-school public servant who scarcely left Yorkshire sneers that education has “ruined this family”.

Summoned for a reckoning that never really happens, Rob and Tina become helpless participants in their parents’ endless bickering. Jack alternately exudes horror at his failing lungs and bladder and his 70-year marriage, and a sly delight in telling old stories from his life on the beat: he’s in his anecdotage. Florence, meanwhile, is going blind and forgetful and mixes up “prostate” and “prostrate” (ho ho).

The eccentricities and indignities of old age are well observed, as is the exasperation and intolerance of selfish middle-aged children dealing with them. But Bean’s mea culpa about the baby boomers’ abandonment of their parents’ values is clumsily expressed: Rob talks about recording his dad’s stories but never listens to him.

Low-level suspicion involving a cousin, Pamela, and a comic ne’er-do-well called Rhubarb Eddie, who both live locally and help out, is introduced to move things along. But basically the show remains stuck in a holding pattern so Bean can study the generational culture clash, stare into the unglamorous inevitable that awaits us all, and indulge his flair for random, free-form humour.

It’s a pleasure to see Armstrong back on stage. Even caked in corpse-pallor makeup and visibly fighting his innate vigour, his comic timing is superb. Bailey is very funny too in the sidekick role of Florence but Rob and Tina are criminally unwritten and Eddie a lazy comic device given flesh by Adrian Hood. There are echoes here of Bean’s best work – The Heretic, One Man Two Guv’nors – but they are faint.

Hampstead Theatre to November 25, buy tickets here

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