Family tangle: James Earl Jones and Adrian Lester in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
Truly great moments of theatre are rare. Even in the best of productions, there are very few of those instants of enthralled astonishment at the rightness of something. For myself, there haven't been many more than five. One of them was an elemental cry of anguish by Sinéad Cusack playing Masha in the Royal Court's 1990 production of Three Sisters, when the man she loves disappears forever, taking with him all hope and everything that matters to her. I have never heard anything like it. Another was in 1971 when Laurence Olivier played a drunk old Irish-American thespian in Long Day's Journey into Night. He combined several accents at once and precariously teetered backwards on a table-edge on the tips of his toes for a tantalisingly long minute.
Another of these moments appeared unexpectedly last month in Really Old, Like Forty Five, an otherwise unremarkable new play at the Cottesloe. Playing a beautiful robot-nurse with angel-wings and stealing the show with her magically robotic movements, Michela Meazza, in a startling moment of unreal tenderness and fleshliness, darts out a long pink tongue to lick a sad old man in pyjamas. It was mesmerising. It is worth seeing this play for Meazza's performance alone — virtuosity like this is unusual. She manages to be entirely convincing in every movement as a slightly clumsy machine, and both to horrify and to entertain as the pre-programmed comforter of the dying old folk in a sinister geriatric hospital. Her mechanical collapse when someone pulls out her wires is a tour de force and very funny.
Meazza is a dancer who has often worked with Matthew Bourne, the inspired choreographer of the famous all-male Swan Lake; like him she has a genius for translating acute physical observation into artistic significance. The movement director of this play, the choreographer Scarlett Mackmin, must take credit for Meazza's performance too. I wish that leading directors exploited these physical skills much more than they do. It isn't that they don't at all: War Horse is one of many obvious counter-examples. It's just that you see the use of this physicality much more consistently in fringe or minority theatre than in mainstream productions.
The rest of Really Old, Like Forty Five was disappointing. Its theme is very timely — what to do with a growing population of old and demented people and what might happen to them in a scary dystopia where they are seen as useless. There was some excellent observation: an aged auntie who smiles through every horror in the spirit of the Blitz and who cheerfully has her leg and finger cut off for stem-cell experiments in the death-hospital, because doctor knows best, is a perfect paradigm of unthinking acceptance of the unacceptable. At times, the play seemed to be drifting in the direction of Orton — laughter in the midst of cruelty and absurdity — but mostly it was pretty straight. A good cast and some funny lines couldn't really save it from the curse of George Bernard Shaw — a tendency to heavy-handed and worthy reflection on the obvious.