In the pandemic (remember that?) I worked in adult social care. My role was to help older people in their own homes with daily tasks – I’d cook meals, do a spot of ironing, perhaps assist them in and out of the shower, and engage in conversation. A good number of them had been diagnosed with dementia, which is why they needed external support. One of the initiatives the social care provider tried to encourage was a ‘life journal’ – more often than not this wasn’t something I even mentioned during a home visit, as there were too many other things to do.
But the idea behind the journal was to note down, in the course of sit-down conversations over a cup of tea, memories from the person’s previous experiences, while they can still recall them. Should their dementia progress, it would then become something to look back on, alongside family photo albums and other items. It was also a quick way of providing other (new) carers additional information about their customer, but, of course, the advice was not to tell the customers that.
I couldn’t help thinking To Have and To Hold was a life journal of sorts – a retrospective account of the life and times of Dennis Woodman (Mark Steere) and his wife Gina (Susan Graham), in what might as well have been called ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’. The broad narrative might, in a different context, have included some unnecessary details, but in the journey, the audience is taken on here, all of it is useful, all of it is relevant and all of it is quite intriguing. Dennis is Gina’s carer: your reviewer found himself identifying with what it’s like when it comes to toileting with an incapacitated person. And he’s right – I cleaned up wearing gloves, an apron and a mask, pandemic or no pandemic, because it was what I was being paid to do – but if one is looking after one’s own, even dealing with continence problems is a labour of love.
There are two monologues going on, providing the audience with ‘his and her’ perspectives. Some stereotypes make it into the story – for instance, some guy called Victor is a legend in his own mind, and his conduct towards Gina would in this day and age almost certainly be a crime against the person (though whether the police would bother investigating these days is another matter), but back in the day, it was a case of her word against his, and there are no prizes for guessing who would be believed and who wouldn’t. Victor isn’t the only antagonist in the story, which has some unexpected twists and turns.
The available performance space is used to good effect, although I’m not entirely sure if some of the living room furniture really needed within the front row’s touching distance. Anyway, the lack of sentimentality is refreshing, but this isn’t a couple living through a cold war of their own: there’s a palpably deep love between them, such that well-worn expressions of affection wouldn’t, in themselves, suffice when it comes to describing how they’ve survived and thrived over the decades.
Their differing recollections of the same key events is a fascinating listen, and while there are so many stories of relationships that don’t stay the course, this is an assured and hopeful story about how love can continue to bind a couple together despite so many opportunities and valid reasons to call it a day. It’s bolder and grittier than I’ve made it sound, however – the no-holds-barred approach both characters have makes for a surprisingly gripping evening.
Review by Chris Omaweng
‘It was her hair that first caught my attention. Jet black.
Glossy. A touch of blue in it. Like starlings’ feathers.’
Dennis and Gina Woodman, a long-married couple, reflect on their lives together in two interwoven monologues. As they describe their past, and the painful situation in which they now find themselves, a picture begins to emerge of a complex relationship.
TO HAVE AND TO HOLD
Writer: MARK BASTIN
Director: FINLAY GLEN
The Bread & Roses Theatre, 68 Clapham Manor Street, London SW4 6DZ
29th November – 3rd December
6th December – 10th December