The Visiting Hour review – Frank McGuinness’s moving care-home drama

A pane of glass is not the only thing keeping a father and daughter apart in Frank McGuinness’s new play for the Gate theatre, Dublin. Even without the restrictions imposed by Covid-19, the weekly visit of a young woman (Judith Roddy) to her father (Stephen Rea) in a care home would be immensely difficult, as she witnesses his mind slipping between lucidity, confusion and fantasy. Sitting outside his window, she tries to connect with him, without any physical contact, while a voice over the PA reminds them that visits can last only 60 minutes.

A sense of ritual pervades both the text and Caitríona McLaughlin’s elegantly composed and polished production. Framed by the glass, Rea’s image is refracted and superimposed on Roddy’s, so we can see both of their facial reactions in a single camera shot. In tuxedo and ruffled evening shirt – over pyjamas – and with shoulder-length curly hair, Rea has the air of a Stuart monarch in old age. In the background is the Gate’s empty auditorium, chandeliers gleaming in Paul Keogan’s lighting, evoking theatrical memories.

A singer or entertainer in his youth – or was he? – the father’s interaction with his daughter becomes a performance in which both know their lines, as she feeds him cues for verbal riffs and familiar routines. Singing is central to the content of their conversation, too, as he ruminates on his imagined past as a Eurovision contestant, testing her patience, and sometimes ours.

While there is a studied quality to the text’s wordplay and duet structure, the two beautifully nuanced performances convey depths of feeling. With the camera moving into closeup, Rea is riveting as his eyes register minute flickers of recollection and fleeting thoughts. Initially steeling herself to maintain ironic distance, the daughter’s composure cracks from time to time under the strain of paying attention to his mood shifts: from childlike playfulness to bitter rage against her for passing “a death sentence” on him.

Concentrating on tone and image rather than a dramatic twist or a resolution, this sensitive portrait of a condition and a relationship has the tug of emotional truth.

The Visiting Hour is available online until 24 April.