This is Living, Trafalgar Studios 2, London ★★★½


Waking, coughing and spluttering, from her face down position, Alice is convinced that must have been a good night out for her to have got into that state. But from her husband Michael’s reaction – and his insistence that he knows that he is asleep on the sofa at home – betrays the truth: he is dreaming, and she is dead, having drowned attempting to save their daughter from the same fate.

So begins Liam Borrett’s debut play, reworked significantly from a single-act piece at the Edinburgh fringe into a full two hours. It’s a deep examination of grief, a perfect vehicle for actor Michael Socha (Being Human) in which to make his West End debut. Socha’s trademark puppy dog eyes and their ability to convey hurt and confusion work overtime throughout, as his character (also called Michael) comes to terms with the death of Alice (Tamla Kari) as the day of her funeral approaches.

But there is also much humour here, especially in the flashback sequences detailing Michael and Alice’s relationship from their first meeting on a Tube. And again, Socha’s ability for comedy comes to the fore. Kari, too, is a skilled comedian, providing her best work during the echoes of a happier life together. Borrett’s dialogue sparkles in these moments, comfortable in the hands of two actors who can more than handle it.

In the play’s opening scenes, the balance of grief and lightness provides a compelling narrative, even as Socha and Kari slide around the water-soaked tarpaulin that covers the stage. But in the second act, the pair’s difficulties in flashback, paired with the intense grief as the dead Alice struggles to come to terms with what has happened to her, overbalance the whole play and cause the pace to grind to a halt.

It’s also a play which is a couple of scenes too long. When Jackie Shamesh’s lighting, which usually crashes between timeframes sometimes mid-sentence, cuts to a premature blackout, the audience’s applause comes in the belief that the work is over. And while the subsequent scenes give the characters a sense of closure, there are changes in the set that betray the effectiveness of the bare, sodden stage that has sufficed for the rest of the play.

But that aside, Borrett’s work has a raw energy to it, complemented by two well cast actors. If you leave the theatre without feeling deeply affected by their tale, you weren’t paying attention.