Home » London Theatre Reviews » To Have And To Hold at Hampstead Theatre | Review

To Have And To Hold at Hampstead Theatre | Review

There are certain productions in storied theatres (like the Hampstead) with legendary creatives (like Richard Wilson) that I find myself willing to be transporting and effective long after it becomes apparent there simply isn’t any spark. But, just like a bad relationship – of any duration – at some point the true nature of the experience becomes obvious and no amount of ‘maybe it’s just me/my expectations are too high’ rationalisation can disguise the central disappointment of a comedy that simply isn’t funny and a script bereft of coherence.

Alan Armstrong in To Have and To Hold. Credit Marc Brenner.
Alan Armstrong in To Have and To Hold. Credit Marc Brenner.

The territory of long marriages has provided centuries of comic material – some of it outstanding. The BBC’s Till Death Us Do Part and Normal Lear’s US adaptation of it, All in the Family, for example, are masterclasses in the humour found in domestic tension. Perhaps a marriage provides the ultimate claustrophobia that can only be escaped with the release of laughter. Yet despite Jack (Alun Armstrong) and Florence (Marion Bailey) Kirk’s 70 years of matrimony together – replete with non-stop bickering and endless mondegreen gags – the funny only occasionally makes a polite appearance, like a spouse trying ever-so-hard in a loveless arrangement.

Armstrong’s able timing is present and there is no question about his capabilities in general, but Richard Bean’s script comes across like the most embarrassing of try-hard TV pilots in the early days of development. As such it gives the actors only a tissue-thin platform on which to work. There are jokes and the odd bit of business that can produce a chuckle, but there is virtually nothing in Bean’s two-act of any substance.

Like many a homecoming drama, siblings Rob Kirk (Christopher Fulford) and Tina Keenan (Hermione Gulliford) arrive to contend with their aging parents and in particular their ailing dad, Jack. Bean sets up many divides: North (the Kirks are from and remain in Yorkshire) and South (Rob and Tina have moved to London and Somerset); working class (Jack is a retired policeman) and middle class (Rob is a published and produced writer and Tina has an MBA); tech-savvy (kids) and digitally-excluded (mum and dad). Of course, in case we don’t get that it’s grim/dim/quaint/pure Up North, we are further telegraphed the homily via some cringe-making supermarket sociology dialogue about Waitrose versus Lidl.

As with any heartbreak, I can’t help but wonder what might have been: had playwright Bean focused more on Jack’s detective yarns and developed the parallel with Rob’s life as a storyteller, might some drama and depth have emerged? Apparently, the original script focused more on those crime stories but it was co-director Richard Wilson who asked they be trimmed. Had the script had an earlier reading, would the single-dimensionality of the play’s younger characters have been exposed and perhaps remedied? There is a front-of-curtain scene (outside of the Kirk’s living room where all other action occurs) in which Tina and Rob discuss their lives as they plan how to manage their parents. Aspects of the younger generation’s dissatisfaction, despite their freedoms and privileges, are established presumably to contrast to the imperfect but affectionate confinement of their elders. Regardless, Tina and Rob’s backstories go absolutely nowhere. Had the minor whodunnit at the centre of the ‘plot’ had any jeopardy or impact, perhaps the audience would feel pathos but, instead, the stakes remain minuscule. Although there’s plenty of disagreement, there is precious little drama.

Perhaps if you’re looking for a sentimental voyage to 1970s TV, you might find a flicker of nostalgia in To Have and To Hold – except that in the days when there weren’t even a handful of channels, every minute of airtime counted (a lesson Bean, Wilson and co-director Terry Johnson would profit to remember). I fear, alas, that this will be a short engagement. As sad as it is, theatre-goers should keep looking for a more compatible comedy.

2 gold stars

Review by Mary Beer

After sixty years of marriage, happily settled into their retirement village in Yorkshire, Jack and Florence have elevated bickering almost to the status of high art. That said, they’re otherwise getting along fine with the support of a cousin and the hilarious interventions of the man known locally as ‘Rhubarb Eddie’. But will their anxious son, shuttling between London and LA, and their errant daughter, contemplating a move to Australia, leave them to live out their days in peace?


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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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2 thoughts on “To Have And To Hold at Hampstead Theatre | Review”

  1. What an unfair review. We so enjoyed the play, found it tender, relevant and funny. Anyone who understands family love and relationships will love this play. The characters are believable, the dialogue good, and the production polished. OK, not a gripping story but that’s not what this is about. Your Reviewer totally misses the point.

    1. I agree with Michael Slowe. It’s wrong to compare it to ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ which was truly dreadful and full of bigotry, even when it first aired. This is not. It’s a reflection of an older and fast disappearing generation who despite everything muddled through with extraordinary stoicism. The baby boomers precisely don’t have a backstory, don’t you see? It has a light touch and it’s an entertaining evening which sums up a lot of what works with family relationships as well as the dysfunctional. Anyone who has been in a car with an ancient parent at the wheel will understand the fear of driving into a hedge. Well done Richard Bean, Hampstead Theatre, and the cast.

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