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Tom and Viv

Michael Hastings
Almeida Theatre
(2006)

Will Keene and Frances O'Connor

Ostensibly the story of the marriage of poet, TS Eliot and his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the play's title is something of a misnomer.

It should rather be called Vivi and .... since the writer is rarely seen, other than as an appendage to the wife who hailed from the wealthy, English upper classes but suffered from hormonal problems that in the first half of the twentieth century were incurable.

Tom and Viv was originally a hit at the Royal Court in 1984 with Tom Wilkinson and Julie Covington in the main parts. Ten years later, it was filmed with Willem Dafoe playing Eliot and Miranda Richardson cast as his wife.

In Lindsay Posner's production, Frances O'Connor plays the bubbly young woman who charmed and married a shy American in the space of her parents' holiday on Anglesey.

She then went into a mental decline with unusual symptoms. She would start speaking on a subject and gradually lose control, and even at times knowledge, of what she said or did.

The play opens in 1915 and forms a fragmentary biography with short scenes on a bare stage with minimal props. There are also regular jumps of half a dozen years, announced by one of the actors.

As Viv declines, her husband, played by Will Keen, has to be supported by his in-laws but begins to thrive. First he becomes a bank clerk, giving him financial stability and then an editor and finally a poet worthy of the Nobel Prize.

Where he failed was in his inability to provide the support that his wife desperately needed. Eventually, he had her incarcerated in an asylum, where she stayed for the remainder of her life.

The supporting cast provides some fine character acting. Benjamin Whitrow is excellent, first as Viv's hearty father and then an odious ex-soldier who lures lunatics into asylums. Anna Carteret is strong as her supportive mother and Laura Elphinstone particularly sympathetic playing her friend Louise. This shop girl has more time and love for Viv than the whole family put together.

The final scenes after the Second World War are poignant, as an American doctor suggests that the madness could by then be controlled and the writer hints that Tom and Viv really had an abiding and undying love, regardless of what had been shown over the previous two and a half hours.

Like Michael Hastings' more recent play, Calico this is a drama about madness in the family of a distinguished writer. Both plays suffer from the same weaknesses in that they lack any real drama and do not try to get to the heart of what it takes to be a writer. This Tom could as easily be any Dick or Harry as one of the most distinguished literary figures of the last century.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher