Much media chatter, of late, has centred on the so-called “grey pound” in relation to cinema and the current crop of films – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet, the peerless Amour, the about-to-open Song For Marion – appealing to an under-recognised older audience keen to see their own experiences on screen. Theatre – a medium that’s presumed to attract an older audience already – hasn’t formed part of this discussion thus far. And yet the fact is that dramas based exclusively around elderly characters have been just as much of a rarity on stage as they have been in the cinema.
Which makes Nichola McAuliffe’s Maurice’s Jubilee both a novelty and a cause for celebration. A surprise hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Hannah Eidinow’s production of McAuliffe’s play (in which the actress also takes one of the three roles) now embarks on a nationwide tour. And the piece looks likely to win itself many more admirers on its travels as it capitalises quirkily on the oddly Royalist sympathies of our post-Jubilee, post-King’s Speech moment.
The Maurice of the title (Julian Glover) is an ailing 89-year-old former jeweller who’s been married to Helena (Sheila Reid) for many years. Cancer-stricken, and by turns quipping and querulous, Maurice has another significant woman in his life, though: the Queen, whom he claims to have shared an intimate moment with on the evening before the coronation, when he was entrusted with the task of collecting the Crown Jewels from Buckingham Palace and transporting them to Westminster Abbey. The memory of that encounter has been central to Maurice’s life ever since, and he fully believes that the Queen will honour the engagement she made with him back then and turn up for tea at the house on his 90th birthday. Helena is dismayed by her husband’s fixation, but his care assistant Katie (McAuliffe) thinks that there might just be a way to make Maurice’s dream of a reunion with Her Majesty come true.
McAuliffe was last seen on stage in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, and a touch or too of Bennett seems to have seeped into the themes and the language of Maurice’s Jubilee, which suggests a companion piece of sorts to the playwright’s 2007 novella The Uncommon Reader. But I’m happy to report that this three-hander is a good deal more satisfying and appealing than Bennett’s current effort, People, at the National Theatre, an institution that’s the butt of one of Maurice’s Jubilee’s funnier jokes.
The play’s premise – that Maurice’s obsession with his encounter with the Queen has alienated his wife and led to estrangement from his son – stretches credibility and the plot become increasingly fanciful as it progresses - right up to a cheeky final twist. However, if McAuliffe’s writing sometimes resorts to whimsy and formulaic comedy (yes, there are Viagra gags) the affectionate, generous tone of the piece proves hard to resist, ultimately.
As do the grace notes that the actors bring to the material. Julian Glover is aces as Maurice, particularly in a lengthy, delicately-delivered monologue in which his encounter with the Queen is recalled. The ever-sprightly Sheila Reid subtly suggests a lifetime of hurt feelings underpinning Helena’s merry pretensions. And McAuliffe makes Katie a cheerful, humorous woman whose own domestic situation - unmarried, childless, living with an elderly father - is not presented in crude, Another Year-style contrast to the happiness of the long-married couple. All three actors have prodigious ease on stage and it’s a pleasure to watch them interact throughout.
The warmth of the script and the performances extends to the design: Christopher Richardson provides a cosy set for Helena and Maurice’s living room (the pair has “down-sized” from a Barnes house to a Penge bungalow following - note topical touch - the loss of shares and savings in Bradford and Bingley and Northern Rock). McAuliffe’s writing also revels in particular daily detail - Trebor mints, Flog It! on the telly, Edmundo Ros on the stereo - which gives the play a palpable sense of everyday domestic life and counters the more far-fetched aspects of the plotting. The tour lasts until April (dates and venues below). But it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see this slight but charming crowd-pleaser making its way into the West End – somewhere near Peter Morgan’s The Audience, perhaps?
Touring to: Brighton Theatre Royal (26 February – 2 March), Birmingham New Alexandra Theatre (5-9 March), Malvern (11 – 16 March), Bromley Churchill Theatre (26-30 March) and Cambridge Arts Theatre (2-6 April).
Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.