In a Glasgow tenement block in the early 1970s, reside two elderly neighbours, Martha and Amie. The building's falling to pieces, and might be destroyed to make way for a new ring road, and apart from visits from the vicar, occasional workmen and, in Martha's case, a young community volunteer named Ellen, Martha and Amie lead rather a solitary existence. Neither friends nor enemies, the two women deal with the privations of their lives in ways that reflect their contrasting personalities. The prissier, more genteel Amie – who feels that moving to the block was something of a social come-down – frets about her missing cat, corresponds with her disinterested nephew, and is currently making a song-and-dance about giving a donation to the local church. Next door, the housebound, rheumatic, religious sceptic Martha – for whom moving to the block years before represented a social step up – natters away to her pet budgie and increasingly finds herself retreating into memories of her past and, in particular, recollections of her dead husband Jack, a work-shy man not averse to the odd money-making scam.
Stewart Conn's 1967 play, first performed at Glasgow's Cizitens' Theatre and revived at Dundee Rep in 1973, now receives a belated English premiere thanks to the Finborough, as part of the theatre's commitment to staging Scottish drama. The premise might suggest a polemic about the social exclusion of the elderly, but the piece turns out to be more of an intimate, low-key work than that description suggests – a character study somewhat akin to Sharman MacDonald's The Winter Guestand Tim Price's wonderful Salt Root and Roe in its focus on elderly characters, though quainter than those plays in its language and design. Formally, it's a duet – a diptych – with the tiny stage split and the action shifting between Martha and Amie's two flats. Refusing to make the women mere quipping figures of fun, Conn's writing has a great deal of humanity and heart, and the parallel portraits of the women's daily lives that the play offers are, for the most part, well-observed and quite engaging. Firmly rooted in Glaswegian culture and language, the play certainly has the distinctive savour of a specific place, and the dialect has bite and beauty without seeming forced or overdone. There are some lovely, fond touches throughout, such as the resilient Amie finding out that Love Story isn't playing at the cinema and so takes herself off to watch Blood of the Vampire instead.
What's less effective, I'd argue, is Conn's attempt to make the piece a memory play. "Flashbacks" to Martha's past, though fairly fluidly integrated, frequently come off as overwrought, as if the playwright didn't quite trust the substance of the women's present-day lives to provide enough dramatic interest. Clearly, part of Conn's intent is to widen the play's scope by making the piece a portrait not just of the woman's daily existences but also of wartime Glasgow as seen through the eyes of "ordinary" people. But since the play doesn't present any of Amie's memories, the drama ends up feeling oddly unbalanced overall.
Lisa Blair's no-frills production doesn't entirely overcome the play's structural shortcomings, and the set and sound design by Alex Marker and Josh Sneesby are merely serviceable. What ultimately holds the evening together, though, is the conviction of the two central performances. Jenny Lee as Martha and Eileen Nicholas as Amie bring a lifetime of experience to their roles, creating two distinct individuals who both win our sympathy and affection. (And some of the more overdone flashbacks are saved by watching the expressions play over Lee's face when Martha's sometimes painful memories surface.) The two women only have one scene together, but it's a gem, and performed to perfection by both actresses. What's most touching about the play, in fact – and this is where the parallel structure of the piece proves effective – is that it shows us two lonely women living side by side who could, potentially, be friends and help each other through their difficulties but who don't, and not because of any particular hostility or antipathy. "Time passes", Amie responds when Martha observes that they see so little of each other. "Not that we've a great deal in common, I suppose..." I Didn't Always Live Here is a minor work, and hardly likely to be regarded as one of the Finborough's great rediscoveries. But the poignancy of its demonstration that years of day-to-day proximity don't make for intimacy lingers in the mind.
The production is at the Finborough until 20th April.