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Theatre review: Footfalls & Rockaby is a great that can still rock you

A Samuel Beckett double-bill portrays the challenges women face across the different stages of their life with triumph.

Siân Phillips in Footfalls & Rockaby. Photo: Steve Gregson

Footfalls & Rockaby
Jermyn Street Theatre,
London, until November 20;
Ustinov Studio, Bath, from
November 24 – December 4

A great many theatregoers – conscious that demand outstrips supply when it comes to legendary stage actresses – would pay good money to see Siân Phillips read out the Highway Code.

This is a fact of which Richard Beecham, the director of this Samuel Beckett double bill Footfalls & Rockaby, seems only too well aware, along with the fact his star is now 88 years old.

Beckett has obligingly written a number of plays that are eminently suitable for actors getting on a bit – there is, for instance, no great need to remember many lines for Krapp’s Last Tape – and there’s certainly no need for any heroics on the part of Miss Phillips in this production. Indeed, it’s the curtain call at the end that requires her to expend most energy.

The two pieces about the challenges women face at different stages of life merge inexorably into each other.

Phillips can be heard, but not seen in the first, and, in the second, she largely sits in a rocking chair, required only to periodically wake from her slumbers and nod along to words that she’s largely pre-recorded.

Charlotte Emerson – playing a daughter nursing her elderly mother through illness in Footfalls – evokes very well the pain she has to endure every bit as much as her charge.

Old age can, of course, be a terrible burden, but, ironically, seeing Phillips making such a strong impression in these plays – and with such economy of effort – makes me think it’s not always without its occasional triumphs.

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