Review: Having the Last Word – a reflection on the intimacy of distance
“This is a play of and about conversations” is how Having the Last Word, Jessica Tabraham’s second original work staged by Wadham Drama, is advertised. However, the audience might feel after watching the play, that it is in fact a play about mediation, despite its (often imagined) conversational interjections. Opening in Mary’s (Wren Talbot-Ponsonby) hospice room, we intrude on what could be one of her and her partner, Jo’s (Esme Rhodes), last conversations. In experiencing such an intimate moment, the audience would not predict the diversity of characters and memories that Mary will come to interact with – from ‘Cornershop Man’ (Aleksandra Matowska) to the surprisingly enthusiastic allyship of Mrs Mackenzie (Kate Harkness). The story that followed was one of internal reflection, meditating on memory and intimacy, and coming to terms with our lived experiences. The tight environment of the Burton Taylor Studio perfectly houses our entrance into Mary’s mind, yet rarely becomes suffocating, constantly alleviated by musical shifts back to reality.
The ’merry go-round’ of conversations prevents any sense of the clinicalness of the hospice environment, and despite the heavy subject matter, you are rarely left feeling sombre. Particularly impressive was the effective comic relief of Harkness and Megan Bruton’s (as Rhiannon) performances. The play avoids the traps of the trendy NHS melodrama, emphasising the staging of the individual, even in its more political moments. Lilia Kanu’s portrayal of the doctor does well to remind us of the comforting nature of the play’s premise, that we are not observing a ‘dying’ person, but just a person.
In that same sense, the play’s most haunting aspect was not Mary’s disease (which remains unnamed) but the absence of her son, Michael. Her refusal to accept his maturity, and at times even speak his name, reflects the complex feelings of guilt that can scar familial relationships affected by ruptures such as divorce and sickness. Perhaps describable as Tabraham’s ‘Godot’, Michael’s presence – or, rather, lack of – personalised Mary’s interactions with the other, more distant characters. In many ways, the unstaged mother-son relationship rationalises the absurdities of her dream-like state, and she, on his behalf, feels the childhood wonder that she comes to realise must have been lost.
Although at times it is hard to read what is reality and what is dreamt, this speaks to the effectiveness of the production. We experience Mary’s delirium; at times controlled, and elsewhere bleeding into reality. All in all, this is a play that does well to explore the intimacy of commonplace interactions, and the range of emotions felt in our most human experiences. It is well-suited for anyone looking for a thoughtful, and relatable comedy, a brilliant escape from the dreary Oxford-evenings. Despite the many laughs from the audience, it is hard not to be moved by Tabraham’s work– and this is even without mentioning the shock X Factor performance that occurs halfway through!