Michael Hastings’s final staged play before his death in 2011, Calico (2004), was about James Joyce and his daughter Lucia. Although it opened in the West End, it earned unfavourable comparisons with his biggest theatrical hit, later a film, Tom and Viv (1984), which dramatised the wretched marriage of TS Eliot and his first wife Vivienne – the latter, like Lucia, dispatched to a mental asylum.
Few would argue that Hastings’s plays warrant classification as modern classics. That’s no reason, all the same, to let them gather dust. Now Two’s Company – admirably committed to uncovering forgotten plays, specifically those written from first-hand experience – treats us to the first revival of his precocious debut.
Don’t Destroy Me, written when Hastings was just 18, was first staged in Notting Hill in 1956, the same year as John Osborne’s transformative Look Back in Anger. Watching Tricia Thorns’s attentively designed production at the Arcola, it’s not hard to discern why it has taken so long for it to draw renewed interest – there’s much promise, but not a great deal of finesse. If sometimes stilted, though, it arrestingly catches the stultification of post-war life and the frustrated young’s inchoate longing for beauty and an elusive better world.
Just as Calico saw Romola Garai making a fine stage debut as Lucia Joyce, one of the welcome boons of this revival is that it incarnates a fresh-faced new generation in the form of debutant Eddie Boyce, who has charm in spades.
Boyce’s character, Sammy Kirz, is 15 with trauma behind him and uncertainty before him. Born in Hungary in the war, his mother dying in childbirth, this wide-eyed Jewish refugee has come to live with his irascible, dipsomaniac father Leo in London lodgings, after a long spell in Croydon with his aunt.
Hastings’s own father died in the war, and his mother suffered from mental instability. That formative background finds expression in Leo’s emotional ineptitude (“I’m trying to get through to you, like any ordinary father should,” Paul Rider’s testy paterfamilias offers). And it’s discerned in the eccentric Mrs Pond (Alix Dunmore), an upstairs tenant who hasn’t been the same since her husband (or so she says) was reported killed in the war. She keeps ducking her rent, to the exasperation of the clucking landlady, and trying to rein in her barely less peculiar daughter Suki (Nell Williams, comically imperious and touchingly diffident).
The burgeoning love-interest between the two gauche youngsters tethers an evening that slightly drifts with the aimlessness of youth itself – we’re treated to rumbling spats between Mr Kirz and his reluctant younger wife Shani (Nathalie Barclay), the latter’s brazen dalliance with a sauntering street bookie, and a visiting rabbi whose prayers fail to curtail the argumentative mood. The simple good-nature of the dreamy boy-hero, just yearning to play his gramophone and seize the day, narrowly persists amid the claustrophobic fray, and I’ll remember the hopeful gleam in Boyce’s eyes long after the play itself has faded from mind.
Until Feb 3. Tickets: 020 7503 1646; arcolatheatre.com