Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, London
Howard Colyer's Homework is not only reminiscent of Waiting for Godot's literal and actual inaction, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes" says Estragon, but also of its cyclical and repetitive rhythms. And without wanting to extend comparisons beyond common sense boundaries, it has to be said that Colyer's play also says something about futility asking the question what are we if we are without memory.
In this two–hander, a day in the life of eighty-six-year-old Mother and her son, forty-eight-year-old Vincent, is compressed into an hour. We don't learn much about Vincent as such, but through the thirty or so phone calls Mother makes to him during the course of the day a lot more is revealed about her background, and that her life has been unexceptional does nothing to reduce the tragedy of her Alzheimer's.
Mother's ritual dialling of the telephone number, the unerring pattern of their calls, the identical opening then a more or less sequential conversation on an often-repeated but randomly-selected subject tells us that every call is the same, and also that tomorrow will follow the same sequence as today, and next week will be the same as this week, at least for the time being.
Vincent lives alone working from home, making him available to answer every call from Mother, and he does; whether his solitary habits are of his choosing is not explicit, but Colyer doesn’t make him a loser or a victim of an overbearing mother, though certainly her illness has made her demanding, and Vincent comes across more as bearing the duty of being the remaining child. Mother's existence is similarly solitary but differently-poignant.
This play is well–crafted; the repetition is just taxing enough to understand the strain of responsibility for someone whose thoughts have become disconnected from reality. What is missing is also striking, and that is the affection between mother and son: there are no social niceties, no caring enquiries, no quick 'love you' as a call finishes, Mother doesn’t even say goodbye before hanging up. There are other subtle messages in the text: not for nothing I think is the Shakespeare Mother learnt at school "…I would not be ambitious in my wish, To wish myself much better; yet, for you I would…".
The publicity material for this play does not do it justice. "Vincent wants to be free of his mother but … she wants to rule his life" it says reeking of cliché. Homework is a more elegant proposition than that, and James Farrell steers clear of cheap emotional shots in his direction. Marc Forde plays Vincent with a visibly measured tolerance being his technique for getting through the day. Jean Apps, recently seen at the Brockley Jack giving a haunting performance in Bodies Unfinished, delivers a detailed characterisation of Mother that is first–rate. Her Mother is simultaneously endearing and heart–breakingly infuriating.
The numbers are big: there are currently 750,000 people with dementia in the UK growing to over a million by 2021 so this play is very timely. Furthermore, while all the attention is currently focussed on institutional lack of care for the elderly, it is refreshing to have Homework's human–scale perspective.
Homework plays until 12 November runs for one hour without an interval and is suitable for over 12s
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti