Barney Norris' While We're Here is a brainworm of a play. While watching, you are right there in the modestly but carefully decorated sitting room of Carol's house - in fact, so engrossed was I that when another audience member's phone started to vibrate, I felt surprise that anyone else was in the room instead of irritation. And steadily, Carol and Eddie's words - their fears, musings and memories - must have seeped into my brain, because later as I lay in bed, snippets of their conversations came back to me and presented their quandaries, in much the way they would have done if I'd had them myself.
The suspension of disbelief is in great part thanks to the nuanced portrayals of the two characters and their interaction by Tessa Peake-Jones and Andrew French. Peake-Jones' Carol is warm but closed; the broad brush-strokes of her emotional maturity form a hopeless crust over her characteristic timidity, betrayed by the fixed (but somehow genuine) smiles she breaks into, and the well-practised avoidance techniques she plays out in moments of tension. Meanwhile, French's Eddie springs about with childish animation, floored whenever a reminder of his age and the years that have passed is presented to him. It is of course also a credit to Norris' empathetic observation of character and language, which for me slips only once; when Eddie is talking about the realisation that "nothing's set up and waiting for us at all, actually" it perhaps sounds more like the voice of a 20-something modern playwright than a lost middle-aged hidden homeless man. But maybe that's the beauty of the thing - it goes so much further than the characters, to the point that it reaches the writer himself. I too am so absorbed by the portrayal of these empty feelings because everyone knows them - it's me, Norris, Carol, Eddie and the rest of the human race in this together.
Nevertheless, on the whole, the characters and their words are full-bodied and thoughtfully paired. The four extended conversations which make up the play flow seamlessly from the banal to the profound, from acceptance of life decisions(/regrets) to the questions which unsettle them. As Carol and Eddie flirt with each other they also flirt with the situation they have found themselves in and its potentiality. They skirt over the surface of their fears, their motivations, what deals life has served them and how they feel about the decisions they have made.
With humanity and craft, Norris manages to look at both what makes life difficult on a local level: rent, paperwork, loneliness, etc., as well as on an essential level: "I want my life to have a meaning" Eddie says plainly. But the only clear meanings to be found in life seem to come with hindsight. And then it's too late.