Bridge Theatre, 25th February 2019
Said it before and I’ll say it again. You have to be careful with adaptations of novels and/or films on stage. There may be enough in character and plot to justify the transfer but there may not always, (no pun intended), be enough in the form of drama, spectacle and movement to make it a resounding success. So it proved here. There is plenty to enjoy here, and Nicholas Hytner’s direction wrings as much colour as its possible out of the material, especially against the backdrop of a crisp design concept from Bob Crowley, and it is, no doubt, a good story, but as theatre, well not quite.
I don’t know the Harriet Lane novel from 2012 on which Lucinda Coxon, (whose work for stage and screen I have also contrived to miss bar The Crimson Petal and the White adaptation), has created the text. But I can see the temptation. It would make a terrific mini-series. As would, I suspect, Her, Ms Lane’s second novel from the sound of it. Harriet Lane began as a journalist herself, I remember her Guardian column, before becoming a novelist when her eyesight was unfortunately imperilled.
Frances Thorpe is a humble millennial sub-editor cum factotum for a Sunday supplement, the Questioner, who, by a twist of fate, finds her life and career catapulted into a new, gilded league. How she plays the circumstances is the nub of the tale. Gold-digging schemer or realistic opportunist? Becky S, Brideshead, Ripley (without the sociopathic tendencies), Eve Harrington, Holly Golightly, those who find, or position, themselves amongst their “betters” are a cultural staple and these are only the most interesting ones. And, as it happens, in one of those serendipitous coincidences which punctuate the life of the idle Cultur-tarian, the Tourist has subsequently seen two of these iconic parvenus in the guise of stage versions of The Talented Mr Ripley and All About Eve. (More to follow, informed, as these comments are, by the far greater literary intelligence of the SO, my carer for all these entertainments).
The tale of Frances is more subtle than many of these comparators, being more contemporary, set in the rarefied world of publishing, but there isn’t too much that will come as a surprise here. Psychological thriller? That is probably a bit of a stretch. Wry comedy of manners? In parts yes, there is plenty to laugh at, but this doesn’t go all out to skewer the manners, pretensions and behaviour of its characters. We need Frances to present a conundrum, difficult to pin down, but not a total blank, and we do need the dimensions of her character to be explored. Which, by and large, they are not.
Frances’s journey is sufficiently supple though to require a convincing lead performance and, in Joanne Froggatt, (made famous by Downton Abbey I gather), that is what it gets. Whilst the narrative of put upon mouse at work rising to the top and dumping on former colleagues along the way is a little cumbersome it is, in parts, a treat. The relationship that develops with Alys’s family and specifically her grieving husband, Laurence Kyte, (not giving much away here you can’t read elsewhere), also provides an opportunity for some sparkling dialogue. However Robert Glenister has to work awfully hard to bring the overweening, prize winning author to life and the knife-edge of Frances’s conflicted motives starts to blunt in the later two-hander scenes.
Leah Gayer as vacuous daughter Polly has a lot more fun. This is her stage debut. She’ll be back. Polly verges on “poor little rich girl” cliche but Ms Gayer somehow manages to elicit some sympathy for the position her character finds herself in. Her brother Teddy (Sam Woolf) is initially on to Frances but fizzles out thereafter. Sylvestra Le Touzel has a lot of fun with Mary, Frances’s long-serving, frayed boss, as does Simon Manyonda as her condescending, partying colleague, Oliver. The rest of the cast don’t get much opportunity to delve beneath the lines with the exception of Joanna David as Charlotte, the family friend who alone seems to penetrate Frances’s feelings and actions.
If directing is all about moving actors from A to B then there is n0-one better than Mr Hytner, who creates forward momentum and some suspense, from what are quite static scenes. The set, with its thrust stage, sliding room configuration and generous use of video (Luke Halls), is likewise silky smooth. As is sound (Gareth Fry) and lighting (Jon Clark). But the impeccable presentation is part of the problem. The play’s two acts clock in at just over two hours but it doesn’t outstay its welcome nor feel rushed. I was intrigued and entertained but never really challenged. Nor was Frances. Her progress is untroubled by doubt, from self, the other protagonists or audience. I remember only one knowing aside from Frances and one killer line from Charlotte.
I gather the book is altogether darker and Frances a far sharper piece of work, and less reliable narrator, than we see here. Translating that tone, that voice, to stage is always challenging. By taking the safe route Mr Hytner, in the first play he has directed written by a woman, will deservedly get bums on the superb Bridge seats, which is after all his purpose, but I hope his next outing, a new Dream will be something more memorable. Mind you it’s Shakespeare so he is off to a head start. After all when it comes to stage tales of self-advancers big Will served up the very best. Richard III. Now that’s how to do it.