As each year drags me kicking and screaming towards my sixties, I have started thinking, albeit very very reluctantly about retirement. What on earth will I do with myself once I don’t have a full-time day job to occupy my time? Maybe I can get some ideas for the future from seeing Trestle by Stewart Pringle which is the first post-lockdown live production at the wonderful Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley.
For Harry (Timothy Harker), a very set in his ways widower, Thursday evenings are an important fixed point in his weekly calendar. Every Thursday he gets himself ready and takes himself to the Temperance Hall, Billingham, Yorkshire for the weekly meeting of the committee he chairs. The format is always the same. Once the meeting finishes, Harry waves farewell to the rest of the committee, gather his papers and sits back for a few moments in relaxed contemplation. Tonight, however, Harry’s routine is about to change as a woman he’s never met before comes into the hall and starts to bustle around. After some initial and rather embarrassing confusion, the woman turns out to be Denise (Jilly Bond), a Sexagenarian Zumba instructor, getting set up for her group who have the hall next. Harry and Denise are pretty much opposites in many respects. While Harry is running down the twilight years, Denise is still grasping life and living it to the full, but somehow, as the weeks go by, and the Thursday chat during hall handover becomes a part of their lives, these two form a friendship as they move the chairs and put away the trestle table.
Trestle has so many good things going for it. It’s a story that reminds all the young folk out there that life doesn’t have to end as you get older. It doesn’t matter if you are a bit of a stick-in-the-mud Harry or a life-and-soul Denise, the future is definitely something to look forward to. Both Denise and Harry are extremely well-written characters who feel very real. Harry is a bit of a fusspot but with a wonderfully dry, and very typically Yorkshire, wit and humour just below the surface. Denise is outwardly a woman of fire and spirit, with a mischievous sense of humour, but like most of us who appear confident, and outgoing is inwardly less sure of herself and in need of some personal validation to keep going. The two of them make a fascinating couple and although on paper they appear to have nothing in common the connection they form is natural and believable.
This is due not only to the writing but also to the two actors playing the roles. And here, I really have to admire their physical energy. The number of times they move chairs and put the trestle down and up as the weeks progress left me feeling exhausted for them, and the scene at the end of Act I was not only very funny but so physically demanding they both deserved a long lie down during the interval. It also reminded me why I will never be seen in public wearing fluorescent shorts. Timothy and Jilly are so good together. The chemistry really flows over the proverbial footlights as their characters spar, flirt and occasionally argue. Their performance is naturalistic and full of nuance and really draws out every aspect of the script. I’ve no idea from where they originally hail but their accents so are authentic you would swear they had spent the early part of their lives “On Ilkley Moor Bar t’At”.
Matthew Parker’s direction is astute and enables the two characters to build their friendship whilst never touching. I wasn’t sure if that was a COVID thing or a nice touch about the unspoken barrier to their relationship. Either way, it worked really well. I also loved the incidental music, mainly used to indicate another week had gone by, which in the first act was loud, exhilarating Latin Zumba tunes and in the second, settled down to quieter, more reflective style indicating the maturing of Denise and Harry’s friendship. Simon Nicholas’s set was so reminiscent of community halls throughout the country, I felt I was back at my first playgroup. And I loved the closet. Stay with me here. When a character comes on stage and takes off their coat, they have to put it somewhere. As this play is a series of small scenes taking place over a period of weeks, this means the character is either having to have a lot of coats, and they pile up on the stage, or they just keep wearing the same one. In this production, they have got over the problem by having a magic closet, so Denise takes off her coat and hangs it up, the scene changes, and she comes back on stage wearing the same coat which has teleported from the closet onto her back. A wonderful touch that really highlights the professionalism and attention to detail of this production. Finally, on the set, there was one aspect that was deeply troubling. When you go and see the show, take a look at the small bookcase by the door. Look at the right-hand side of the bottom shelf and you will see a small figure. I don’t know if it’s me, but the fixed face and blank eyes really gave me the shivers as soon as I clapped my eyes on it.
Summing up, I really loved Trestle. Writing, direction and acting brought to life two people that audiences of all ages could connect with and care about, and as we left the theatre I for one was hoping that the scarecrow was a positive indication of where Denise and Harry would be going next.
Before signing off I just want to give a huge shout out to Kate and Karl at the Jack Studio. They have really gone the extra mile to welcome their audience back and ensure they are safe and covid-secure. It’s obvious a lot of thought and effort has gone into making the theatre ready for re-opening and their attention to the needs of the audience go a long way to explaining why this will always be one of my favourite off west-end theatres.
Review by Terry Eastham
We’re not here forever. You’ve got to take a chance from time to time. Sometimes you’ve got to see something you like and grab hold. Don’t let it go.
Harry feels like life is beginning to tick down, his autumn years spent quietly caring for the community he loves. Denise thinks life begins in retirement and she’s dancing like she’s still at high school. When their paths cross at the village hall, their understanding of the time they have left changes irrevocably. What do community, growing old, and falling in love really mean? And who gets to decide anyway?
Trestle is a warm hearted, funny and moving look at two retired people brought together each week as they fold away a trestle table in their community hall. A bittersweet comic drama about later life, love and community. And bananas.
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
www.brockleyjack.co.uk or 0333 666 3366 (£1.80 fee for phone bookings only)
Dates: Tuesday 15 to Saturday 26 June 2021 at 7.30pm. (NO perfs: Sunday/Monday)