Something in the Air by Peter Gill

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Reviewed by Harriet

Peter Gill’s most recent play finished a relatively short run at the Jermyn Street Theatre on 12 November. I would have loved to go and see it, but I wasn’t able to be in the UK at that time. So I did the next best thing and read it, thanks to Faber, who kindly sent me a copy. And what a tender, beautiful play it is. 

The play opens with two elderly men, Alex and Colin, sitting in wing-backed chairs in what is evidently a retirement home. Historians of twentieth-century theatre might be reminded of David Storey’s 1970 play Home, which opens in much the same way, but we are in a different world here.  As the stage directions tell us, ‘Alex has a knitted rug over his knees and they are holding hands unobtrusively, hardly more than touching’. They communicate sparsely, mostly monosyllabically, and it’s quickly apparent that Alex is the frailer of the two both physically and mentally. But then the reminiscences begin in the form of interior monologues, and both men’s memories of the love affairs of their youth are crystal clear. 

Ian Gelder and Christopher Godwin as Alex and Colin, Jermyn Street Theatre

Alex remembers a house by the river in Hammersmith where his lover lived, something of a shock to his working-class sensibilities:

I was unnerved you know by that house when I first came there, where the hall was dark and the walls were white and there was no dining room but a kitchen converted, so that it was half modern and half something quite else. With a big wooden table and benches to it at one end a dresser covered with china and a collection of memorial plates to Gladstone and china dogs, and on the wall was a country clock that didn’t work, and at the other end all more up to date…

Colin, meanwhile, remembers the Partisan Coffee House in Soho, serving borscht and cheesecake, where you could sit all day with one cup of coffee and talk politics and plan the Aldermaston March. 

I did indeed see you across a room through a kind of blue about you and something smudged and rose-coloured and immediately attractive that revealed a gentle head boy hesitancy and an almost maternal concern. We walked into north London through the summer night in an ecstasy of talk from Soho through Bloomsbury and up past the Craven A factory and into Camden Town and an early morning fuck on Primrose Hill.

At first you may assume they are recalling a shared relationship but this is not so.  Interspersed with the monologues and their occasional real time exchanges with each other are their brief (imaginary? remembered?) conversations with the two young men, Nicholas and Gareth, who were each of their lovers in those long ago days, and who appear on the stage, though obviously unseen by the other characters. 

Very much present, however, are the visitors who come to see their ageing relatives: Alex’s son Andrew, who he barely recognises, confusing him with his dead brother, and Colin’s niece Clare, who evidently has a warm relationship with her uncle. Andrew is shocked and embarrassed to see the old men are holding hands and wants to report them to ‘the whatever of this place’ but Clare is happy for them, and eventually the two of them strike up what may be a bond.

Something in the Air ran for only just over an hour in performance, but it contains an enormous amount of resonances. It’s about old age, of course, and memory, and love found and lost, betrayal and confusion, loss and mourning. And of course it’s about being gay, both in the sixties and in the present day where, as Andrew demonstrates, homophobia is still alive and kicking. It’s also a welcome reminder that those old people who many of us may disregard or recoil from will have a powerful and vivid inner life.

Peter Gill, himself in his eighties, is a celebrated playwright and director. He started his career as an actor, was an assistant director at the Royal Court Theatre in the 1960s, and in 70s was Artistic Director of Riverside Studios, moving on to the National Theatre in the 1980s. He has written numerous plays, including the much admired York Realist (2002), and adapted others, the last of which was Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in 2017. I reviewed his autobiographical book Apprenticeship back in 2018 [here].

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Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Peter Gill, Something in the Air (Faber, 2022). 978-0571381456, 80pp., paperback original.

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