It’s often a challenge to translate poetry into a dramatic piece for the stage, and Love, Loss & Chianti attempts to do just that with two collections by Christopher Reid – the elegaic The Scattering and the darkly comic The Song of Lunch.
It’s my second visit to the newly refurbished Riverside Studios, and on the way in I met a delightfully theatrical elderly man trying to find the door; on arrival we wished each other enjoyment of the piece. A starry night with celebrities gravitating towards the flashbulbs, this revival clearly had “star quality” written all over it.
First staged at the Chichester Festival in 2015, at that time Robert Bathurst (who also stars, alongside Rebecca Johnson) had a “devised by” credit, and the first half was presented as monologue with live music. Since then both pieces have undergone some revision and rethinking, and both are now two-handers, giving the wife lost in A Scattering an equal voice alongside her bereaved husband.
The Song of Lunch was adapted for television ten years ago with Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson as the awkward old flames meeting for dinner, so it’s a piece I am more familiar with, but the two set together make a complementary pair.
Last year, Bathurst appeared at the Coach & Horses in Soho in that gift to any actor playing a drunk, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, which may have given him pointers for the boozy writer courting his ex in an Italian restaurant. His particular style, a laconic Englishman slightly out of vogue, works well as He tries to navigate a lunch, put a damper on the physical attraction he still feels for Her.
A Scattering was written by Reid after his wife declined and died from a brain tumour, and faces the harsh realities of watching a loved one slip away through poems such as Late (“of course I’d forgotten she’s died”). It has language which reminded me of TS Eliot, and a theme which twins with Tess Gallagher’s set of poems called Portable Kisses.
It’s very stark and matter-of-fact, yet the central poem which gives the collection its title is about elephants scattering the bones of one of their kind in an age-old ritual, which seems miles away from the man in the Panama hat awkwardly shaving his wife’s head, or falling for the young her before he met her from her diaries and photos.
With a busy animation going on behind both pieces, there’s not much in the way of static set: I found the designs by Charles Peattie worked well for A Scattering, with their swirls, lines, and abstractions, but less so in generating the ambience of a busy restaurant in The Song of Lunch, which I found a bit too cluttered and distracting.
Johnson is spiky and closed off in this second piece, keeping her old flame at arm’s length while knowing exactly how to press his buttons; she is open, warm and loving in A Scattering, as befits the memory of one who has died. In life, was she really more like the old flame we see, argumentative, combative, on the edge of resentful?
Love, Loss & Chianti is an interesting exploration of relationships and how people relate, and is a valiant attempt to catch the unusual rhythm of the poems utilised in its creation. Jason Morell’s direction gives every gesture and prop a meaning, every glance and inflection a purpose.
Oh, and that theatrical type I encountered on the way in? At the bows, it clicked. He was Christopher Reid. I trust he enjoyed himself.
Love, Loss & Chianti continues at the Riverside Studios until 17 May 2020. Image credit Alex Harvey-Brown.
LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to see Love, Loss & Chianti.