Every cloud has one, but there are clouds aplenty outside the old people’s home in Gravesend that is the setting for the première of this first full-length play by the well-known comedienne, Sandi Toksvig. The situation of the five elderly ladies who live on the upper storey of the building is precarious. The coastal town of Gravesend has been overwhelmed by a flood of biblical proportions, and the inhabitants have been evacuated, all save the old ladies whose dithering has now left them stranded, as the waters rise inexorably towards the upper floor of the building. This rather unlikely scenario is lent an air of authenticity by news broadcasts on Radio 4 in the familiar tones of BBC announcer, Zeb Soanes.
The five cantankerous, quarrelsome and downright grumpy old ladies are not best pleased when a young black woman with attitude arrives and harangues them. Her inept exhortations to leave the building with her just get the old ladies’ backs up, until she too finds herself trapped in the building as the rain continues to lash the flood waters outside. Are the helpless females doomed?
Of course not! Inner resources of strength and determination are tapped. Long-dormant skills are revived. Cantakerousness is replaced by co-operation, physical infirmities are overcome, thinking caps are donned, and together they contrive their own means of escape. The plot is something of a showcase for the author’s right-on views about issues like global warming, racism, Brexit and men (the only man to put in an appearance is a predator who arrives by boat, and is seen off in no uncertain fashion). The audience which packed out the theatre in this prosperous London suburb, and was decidedly not of the populist persuasion, heartily approved.
Most of all, the show is a celebration of women – more particularly, older women. No bad thing, but there is a cloying sentimentality and unsubtle preachiness about the way each character unburdens herself of her repressed emotions : the woman who had to keep her lesbian relationship a secret, the woman who was bored rigid by her comfortable life with a respectable husband, the woman who sighed with relief when her retired husband had a heart attack and set her free.
What redeems the show from relentless earnestness is Sandi Toksvig’s wicked humour. She peppers the dialogue with delicious repartee and innuendo. The jokes are scurrilous and scabrous. Sex is still on the minds of these ancient harridans, and sex toys are displayed to show they are growing old disgracefully. The infirmities and indignities of old age are not just lamented, but are the source of much of the laughter which shook the audience. The show really is very funny, and that should guarantee that its short run at the Rose Theatre will not be its last.