Theatre Review: Same Time, Next Year – Clandestine Catalyst, Or Low Fidelity Love

September 25, 2023

 

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Same Time, Next Year / Directed by Christopher Weare / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg

 

Bernard Slade’s comedic two-hander Same Time, Next Year was written in 1975, and the story begins around that time, in a period-perfect hotel room designed by Niall Griffin to reflect the dubious décor trends of the time. As a friend noted: “You forget how brown the Seventies were…” That the same room – with its quirky details, including a wonky painting on the wall and an entirely unnecessary pouf on the floor that is inevitably involved in bits of physical comedy – is the set for a tale that unfolds over two-and-a-half decades makes the piece feel a bit like a sitcom, where the surroundings remain reassuringly familiar while the characters develop and grow.

That format plays out beautifully in protagonists George (Alan Committie) and Doris (Sharon Spiegel Wagner), who meet in a restaurant and are waking after a night together as the play begins. The story’s conceit is that, though this first assignation was unexpected and against the grain, the couple, after discovering a connection between them, decide to meet in the same hotel room on the anniversary of this night, and then continue to do so for a quarter of a century, while the rest of their lives with their spouses and families continue as “normal”. There’s a sleazy and obviously problematic angle to that idea, which is never denied (guilt is a major thread in the dialogue), but it soon becomes clear that Slade is intent on using the conflict between an expected cultural response to their behaviour and the unfolding development of their relationship as the means to, if not completely flip expectations, then at least to challenge the notion that what they are experiencing is superficial and meaningless.

Both characters are disarmingly unlike the Hollywood model of how an unfaithful spouse is generally presented. George is a guilt-ridden, insecure nerd who get asthmatic when stressed, while Doris is a high school drop-out without much hope for a more exciting life than she currently has. Both confess to being relatively happy in their marriages, and don’t expend too much energy on trying to analyse why they ended up together at all. As such, there’s an argument for them being somewhat forgettable – an ordinary Joe and Joan fumbling about occasionally in a brown backwoods hotel room that doesn’t get an upgrade in 25 years.

But a number of factors guarantee that this does not become their fate. Audiences do need to identify the infidelity aspect and get their heads around it in context, but once that is done, and regardless of cultural or religious or other challenges in that respect, the script is genuinely and consistently funny. Ironically, it steers well clear of the well-worn relationship cliches that might be expected and explores more difficult ground with a good deal of sensitivity. Both Committie and Spiegel Wagner’s performances support this brilliantly, with the actors’ onstage chemistry communicating a warmth and understanding between the characters that makes their relationship less about sex and more about being understood in a way they perhaps are not elsewhere (whether this is more or less of an issue in terms of their cheating is an unasked by unavoidable question).

Committie’s physical comedy skills are an often hilarious counterweight to George’s diffident self-analysis, with introspection often interrupted by controlled clowning, giving the audience two completely different aspects to laugh at in a matter of seconds. George remains largely the same sort of person throughout, though some inspired twists late on add a couple of unexpected layers (and allows more of a platform for Committie’s equally impressive dramatic acting).

Doris, conversely, makes great strides between each featured tryst (the couple meet every year, but the play only covers a handful of those reunions), becoming an ever more confident woman and an aspirational figure in many ways, particularly when the relative state of women’s rights and the altitude of glass ceilings in the Seventies and Eighties is taken into account. Throughout, though, she offers plenty of depth in conversation and seems the more stable of the pair. Spiegel Wagner makes handling the themes, the humour, scattered moments of profundity and her wide character arc seem effortless.

These efforts make two flawed individuals seem likeable and relatable, and also underline the way in which Slade largely removes sex from the spotlight, allowing space for the audience to get to know George and Doris better and to have a more thought-provoking experience than a glib Carry On-style farce would have allowed.

 

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