Review: An Earlier Heaven

Nathaniel Darling and Jessica Scott 22 November 2013

9.30pm, Tue 19 to Sat 23 Nov 2013, Corpus Playroom

A woman lies comatose on a hospital bed, a heart rate monitor reminds us of the little life she has left, and a table of get-well-soon cards stands in the corner of the room. This is the setting with which we are met from the moment we set foot in the Corpus Playroom, and each scene takes place within this hospital room, with the unconscious Alice  present throughout the performance.

An Earlier Heaven is generally successful, but suffers from a not-quite-harmonious merging of genres. The funny scenes are funny; the moving scenes really are moving; it’s just that combined as they are they serve to compromise rather than complement one another. It is at its best when it is not the black comedy it considers itself to be, but rather a poignant piece of drama, which makes the audience laugh through its realism.

The play is about family relationships, in the context of the imminent death of one member, Alice. For her two sons and her granddaughter, there are moments where it seems they display real human endurance, alongside others where they remain absorbed in the pettiness of unresolved childhood grievances. Outside this dynamic is her husband, Roger, who does not conform to any expectation of a grieving husband, and in this respect stands out. The fact that humans are often so affected, and indeed constrained, by what is expected of them is one of Skidmore’s principal insights.

Tom Stuchfield gives an outstanding performance as Alice’s husband, and Sam Sloman is convincing as the older brother Henry. These characters, written and performed naturalistically, appear at odds with the exaggerated portrayal of Yaseen Cader’s Doctor, and the somewhat problematic character of Gavin: on the one hand ridden with fraternal insecurities and on the other able to slickly deliver Skidmore’s intelligent, but incongruous, one-liners.  This again is symptomatic of the not quite resolute genre.

The writing is good, but would have been better still had Skidmore cut some of the quick paced comedic exchanges in order to allow the characters greater sincerity. Where he does this, the play is at its funniest – and this seems to be the root of Skidmore’s dilemma: what he aspires to write isn’t as good as what he actually writes. The physicality of the almost slapstick climactic scene, and the clever one-liners littered throughout are not nearly as good, or as funny, as the slower exchanges, the infrequent but momentous silences, and the tenderness of his characters when they are not after the next gag.

That said, An Earlier Heaven is always enjoyable, and in its best moments Skidmore creates something special and genuinely insightful.