tom and gill

The Secret Lives of Henry and Alice

The Prince of Wales Theatre, Cannock


When the highlights, or perhaps more the dimmed lights, of life are wiping work surfaces, ironing, feeding the goldfish, arguing about fish or spaghetti for tea . . . then marriage is, at best, dormant, an idea rather than a reality.

Henry’s escape is a secret life as a legendary actor, superbowl winning quarterback, stand up star, tycoon, US President, secret agent, even stellar dancer Henry Astaire - and all with a growing hint of the Casanovas; quite a busy life . . . except he never has to leave his armchair – it’s all in his head.

Henry could bore for England, more exciting asleep than awake, but Tom Roberts brings him to sparkling life as Henry’s mind escapes from reality, switching characters into whatever daydream or fantasy is playing in his head to brighten up his humdrum life.

Strangely enough all the women, who become more sexual and teasing as daydreams drift into fantasy, all seem to look like Alice – even Astaire’s Ginger.

As for Alice herself, she has a marriage, or perhaps more accurately, a husband, exuding all the excitement of a comatose slug. It’s an endless treadmill of washing up, wiping work surfaces, washing and ironing.

The washing up, of course, could have been relieved by Henry’s Christmas present of a dishwasher, or at least a receipt for the deposit – the actual dishwasher was to be delivered the week after Christmas. A present he knew little about, not even make, except it would give Alice an extra four hours to watch telly on Sundays with the time she saved washing up. It did not go down well.

But then little did . . . go down well that is, and the present was cancelled. That particular outbreak of squabbling stemmed partly from Henry’ simple assertion that his role in the marriage was to make a mess while Alice’s role was to clean and tidy up, which, to him, represented a perfect partnership.

The pair didn’t speak much and when they did it usually descended into pointless bickering, such as ten minutes arguing about whether to have fish or spaghetti for tea. Neither would decide, descending into an argument about . . . well not deciding.

So, Alice, in a lovely performance from Gill Jordan, last in Cannock as her alter ego Doreen Tipton, starts to escape her own drudgery with her own world of fantasy, flirting outrageously on her fantasy holiday in Kenya with the likes of French waiter Michele, who looks remarkably like Henry.

But even in her own world, one she creates herself, with her own rules, own morality, she has a problem, bemoaning the fact that even controlling everything “you can’t get laid in the privacy of your own head.”

The couple have no children – if you don’t count Orca, the goldfish. Alice wanted them but Henry never seemed interested, while Henry, who thought he would be a good dad, thought Alice didn’t want them, so never bothered.

As for Orca, he was the sort of spirit of their marriage. We discover he was won at a funfair thirty years ago, the night Henry, sort of, proposed and Alice, sort of, said yes. And like their marriage he is still going round and round in the same old pointless way, three decades on.

The pair are not so much happy as resigned to their marriage with the escape route in their own minds . . . until Henry breaks that particularly reverie by ending in hospital with heart problems, cardiac incident as they say. Alice fears the worst, even managing a gangster’s moll fantasy where she is accused of murder by nagging.

As it is Henry is not quite at death’s door, although his 190 something over 120 something or other blood pressure, is a dangerous state of affairs, which perhaps gives the pair a moment of reflection and a realisation they have both been living secret lives in their minds.

Not only that, they are each the other half of their fantasies, living an exciting, exotic life, unwittingly, in each other’s heads.

So perhaps, after 30 years, with a marriage in the doldrums, they can let a fantasy or two, or at least the feelings they generate, loose in real life.

David Tristram’s two-hander is a gentle, very funny comedy which probably strikes a chord with every married couple in the audience. We have all had the same situations at some time or another - tea making that gets done, eventually, the tidy-untidy game, the frustrations and dithering - no blazing rows, just nibbles, prods and pokes.

Henry and Alice’s lives are beautifully acted and played out on a simple set which serves as their living room, office and even Welsh beach – bit like Kenya without the expense or injections - with the large screen serving as their living room TV, and the window into many of their fantasies, which are given the Hollywood treatment.

Their marriage is an exaggeration of many a relationship, every disagreement, resentment and bicker of a lifetime condensed into a couple of hours.

It is perhaps that familiarity, even at arm’s length, which makes people feel at home watching the endless skirmishes that populate Henry and Alice’s marriage. Perhaps we even have our own fantasies, our own secret lives . . . whatever. It is a play that delights the audience, full of laughs and stupid, pointless arguments. The play's run might have ended at The Prince of Wales Theatre in Cannock, but somehow, you hope, Henry and Alice will still be going on, still together, perhaps now even talking to each other. You never know.

Roger Clarke


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