For people in tragedy’s shadow, ‘normal’ life can seem like an irrecoverable paradise. All those cups of tea, those petty squabbles, all those arguments, giggles and journeys to work. Once they were just the stuff of workaday routine but, in the slipstream of terrible events, what wouldn’t we give to have those mundane, untroubled days back?
No one would describe the family home at the heart of Ian Salmon’s Those Two Weeks as paradise, but there are squabbles and hugs and cuppas galore, not to mention whispers and skeletons in closets. The place is Liverpool, the time is April 1989, and these are the Millers – a relentlessly wise-cracking family who could have been plucked straight from golden era Brookside. For audience members of a certain age, there are shades of the Dixons, the Corkhills and the Grants in the back-chatting banter, the sudden twists of betrayal and love.
If the play, directed by Mike Dickinson, was simply a scouse family drama set in the 1980s, it would be endearing enough. There’s the constant verbal sparring of teen lads, Joseph and Pete – the former played by James Ledsham as a touchingly pained romantic, the latter portrayed by Daniel Cassidy as a restless kid energised by that new-fangled acid house. Their older sister, Jacqui (Katie King), is a fine portrait of raised eyebrows and sneers, never short of a brittle put-down, particularly where the lads are concerned.
And then there are the parents: Terri (Jackie Jones) and Dave (Mike San). As far as the kids are concerned, mum and dad may as well have sprung into existence as fully grown adults the day their first child was born. It’s the prerogative of youth to view one’s own birth as the family’s Year Zero, but Salmon’s script sketches in the bigger picture – the dilemmas and decisions, the tensions and torments that brought these two people together. How long they’ll remain together is one of the play’s key questions, but even this potential trauma-in-waiting will ultimately be dwarfed by a greater tragedy lurking up ahead.
This is April 1989, remember, and there are tickets to the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough to be had. And although this is not a play about that singular event, everything that happens on stage must ultimately be viewed through the tragedy’s uniquely distorting prism. As the title suggests, the eventful fortnight we witness doesn’t take place over any two weeks. These are those two weeks – “the last time that Liverpool was normal”.
I knew when I took my seat in Port Sunlight’s cosy Gladstone Theatre that Hillsborough was crucial to this play, but the longer the drama went on, the easier it was to forget. And isn’t that just as it should be? None of these characters knows what’s about to happen – and that’s the case for all of us as we set about dealing with the mundane. No one knows when the life-changing knock on the door might come.
But if it’s easy to forget about Hillsborough for the best part of the play’s two hours, it comes crashing home before the evening is out. And while the moment of truth is hardly a twist, I think it’s best to leave Salmon’s methods unspecified. Suffice to say, the final sequence alters the play’s character dramatically, and behind me, there were all-too-real tears being shed. Not dainty, eye-glistening tears, but audible, anguished sobs.
For much of its duration, Those Two Weeks is warm-hearted and soapy, a bit sitcom, a bit kitchen sink, and it could be argued that the plot is a little detached from the emotional punch when it finally comes. But the writing is crisp, the characters easy to care for, and compared with the unknowable tragedy that’s about to consume them, this twisting, tormented world could eventually seem like a place to which they might want to return.
Photos by John Johnson
Those Two Weeks ran at the Gladstone Theatre, Port Sunlight, between July 27-28, 2018