WHAT makes us who we are? Our emotions, consciousness, the sum total of our recollections? What if the faint echo of memory was all we had left? Would we become lesser people, second-rate citizens? And, crucially, in whose eyes?

In his thought-provoking play Half Life, John Mighton poses fundamental questions about what makes us human and explores the nature of ageing (do we vanish with along with our fading memory?) through the prism of Clara and Patrick, two elderly residents who fall in love in a nursing home.

Clara is a model patient, and by all accounts a loving mother whose devoted son Donald visits her religiously almost every day. When Patrick, once a mathematician and codebreaker, is dragged reluctantly into care by his concerned daughter, their paths cross. The pair soon become convinced they were lovers during World War Two – which may or may not be true - and rekindle their romance amidst the humdrum of the care home, stealing dances in the basement and flirting over card games in the common room. But fiercely protective Donald is far from thrilled with the blossoming relationship.

Simultaneously riddled with guilt at the prospect of causing his mother pain and convinced she is too far gone to fully comprehend the implications of her decision, when Patrick proposes, Donald puts his foot down.

Helen Ryan is effortlessly gentle and tender as Clara, a women forever flickering between confusion and perceptiveness. Never dipping into the pathetic or pitiful in her depiction of the pensioner, she imbues the octogenarian with vim and unwavering optimism as she laughs off her lapses. She meets her match in every way in Patrick Godfrey as her paramour. The actor is flawless as contrary Patrick, who soon finds a second wind in the presence of his long-lost sweetheart.

Raymond Coulthard’s sensitive portrayal of Donald, a man forced into a parenting role he struggles to navigate or come to terms with, is deeply moving.

A special mention must be paid to the ingenious set. While the characters inhabit the clinical corridors of the nursing home, above them designer Janet Bird creates a warren of upside-down chairs and hospital walls, mirroring their topsyturvy inner world, where memories overlap, fragment and tear away.

Hugely poignant, surprisingly hopeful and tightly crafted, Mighton’s snapshot of (half?) life in old age will leave you reeling.

Half Life runs at the Ustinov in Bath until November 6.

Marion Sauvebois