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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Tom and Viv
Almeida Theatre Autumn 2006

Michael Hastings' 1985 bio-drama is an interesting and mildly scandalous peep into the lives of the famous. What it isn't, though, is a good play, and all the talents of director Lindsay Posner and an admirable cast are unable to disguise that failing.

Poet-and-critic-to-be T. S. Eliot married patrician Vivienne Haigh-Wood in 1915, not knowing that she was mentally unstable, and they lived with each other's mental and emotional problems (essentially amounting to manic-depressive swings, hers far more extreme) until he and her family had her committed in 1938 to a genteel asylum for troubled ladies of quality, where she died nine years later.

A virtue of Hastings' telling of this story is his balanced sympathy with all concerned. While making it clear how impossible to live with Viv was, and how temperamentally ill-equipped for the job Tom was (with her Victorian family even less able to cope), he also shows that she was a victim of medical ignorance and societal sexism.

A particularly clumsy early scene establishes that her mental problems were rooted in what would today be called hormonal imbalances screwing up her body chemistry, and an even clumsier later scene reaffirms that diagnosis with the added ironies that her early medication actually worsened the problem and that newer treatments could have helped had her asylum doctors bothered to ask.

The awkwardness of those two key scenes, with irrelevant characters introduced just to have medical conversations with an uncomprehending Viv, is typical of the play's strained dramaturgy.

Hastings' only mechanism for establishing the passage of time is to have one or another secondary character step forward, announce the year, and fill us in on what has happened since the last scene. And most of the dozens of very short scenes end with what is meant as an ironic twist or bit of foreboding, all of which fall flat.

The characters, too, are barely allowed to rise above stereotypes - Tom as the repressed and buttoned-down virgin, Viv as the free spirit whose energy spins into uncontrolled mania, her father as an oblivious country squire, her mother surviving life only through constant Victorian denial, and her brother a cheerfully stupid military man.

You keep waiting for one of the Haigh-Woods to show an unexpected hint of depth or self-awareness, just to make them human, or for some insight into the symbiosis that bound Tom and Viv together for so long. But Hastings' idea of character complexity goes no further than giving Tom an unexpected (and irrelevant) fondness for chocolates and whoopee cushions.

A cast of stalwart and reliable actors do their best with these cardboard figures and by-the-numbers narrative, but the play defeats them and director Posner.

Given the sole note of repression to work with, Will Keen as Tom drifts into an impersonation of David Hyde Pierce (the prissy brother on Frasier), while Frances O'Connor too rarely lets us see past the surface of Viv's forced gaiety.

The somewhat simpler roles of father (Benjamin Whitrow), mother (Anna Carteret), brother (Robert Portal) and sympathetic nurse (Laura Elphinstone) are well within the range of these performers, who do not have to work particularly hard to give what little is demanded.


Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Tom and Viv - Almeida 2006