Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre review ***

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Nightfall

The Bridge Theatre, 10th May 2018

If you haven’t been yet the Bridge Theatre offers up London’s best large scale flexible space. And very nice toilets. You’ve probably know that if you have any interest in things theatrical. You will also have probably have read that the space, and specifically the stage itself, here “thrust” into the audience, is the biggest handicap, as well as attraction, for this production of Barney Norris’s new play.

For mercurial designer Rae Smith, after the grim dystopian disappointment of the NT Macbeth, has conjured up a belter here along with lighting designer Chris Davey. A farmhouse cottage, its unkempt back garden, a massive, rusty oil pipe which runs behind it and a stunning realisation of the twilight sky, the backdrop for both acts. It looks amazing. Unfortunately the play itself, and its four characters, struggle to match its majesty. This is a play, as the criterati have unanimously observed, that would work better on a smaller stage. Not just because the subject, a dysfunctional family, is intimate, but also because the production, under the direction of Laurie Sansom, (he of the James Plays), is necessarily static.

That is not to say this isn’t an interesting drama, especially after the disclosures at the end of the first act. It just takes a bit of time to get going. We are on familiar territory. The inverse of the rural idyll. The trap that is the contemporary farm. I have raved before about director Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling, one of the best films of last year. which turns this setting into a visually and dramatically compelling narrative (The Levelling film review *****. The idea of Simon Longman’s Gundog at the Royal Court was powerful even if the play itself couldn’t support its weight (Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre review ***). Barney Norris himself has explored relationships in the rural setting of his native Hampshire before I gather, though I haven’t seen any of this work.

Jenny’s (Claire Skinner) husband has died leaving her the struggling farm. She is still grieving and prone to a sip or two of pinot grigio. Daughter Lou (Ophelia Lovibond) works at a local estate agent/developer but dreams of escape. Son Ryan (Sion Daniel Young, so good in Gary Owen’s Killology) has taken on the labouring. We first encounter Ryan with his friend Pete (Ukweli Roach) illegally tapping into the pipe, a ruse to rescue the farm. Pete has a bit of history with crime we learn and had a relationship with Lou, though she is now wary of him.

I understand why Barney Norris takes his time to flesh out his characters before advancing the plot but the wait does drag a little and, curiously, we don’t really get to appreciate why they have ended up tied to this place and each other. There are tensions, though again wisely, there are also still clear bonds between the four of them. As the secrets come out, as you knew then would, the pressure ratchets up. It doesn’t end well. Chekhov’s fingerprints are all over this.

Claire Skinner (a wonder in Terry Johnson’s underrated Prism at the Hampstead) does a grand job of showing Jenny’s slow disintegration and her desperation to keep the kids close at hand. Ukweli Roach and Ophelia Lovibond flesh out the relationship between Lou and Pete, alternately tender and matter-of-fact, and Sion Daniel Young shows us how immature Ryan tries to dodge reality.

It is worth staying with it, for there is truth in these characters, and it is easy to see what attracted Nicholas Hytner in wanting to stage it. I could also see, and hear, why people might be attracted to Barney Norris’s novels, where description and insight presumably augment any overly elegiac plotting. Writing about the everyday for the stage is hard, (the novel or film always works better), but Mr Norris knows how to. Just maybe not for this stage. Mind you I see that £15 will get you a seat up close in the pit for the last week or so and that is well worth it.

 

 

 

Killology at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

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Killology

Royal Court Theatre, 8th June 2017

There are a few plays every year where I kick myself that I missed them. Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Stott from 2015 was definitely one of them. So I was determined to see Killology (pre-reviews) even though I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the Royal Court blurb. I shouldn’t have worried, there was way more to this play than this teaser implied. If I was a brighter boy I probably also would have conducted a rudimentary search of the title for this would have led me to the inspiration for Mr Owen’s play Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who research is referenced in the text.

Killology deals with male failure and violence, notions of responsibility and the troubled relationships of son to father and father to son. It is not an easy watch. Through a series of pacey, interlocking, non-linear monologues, it tracks the stories of three men, Alan, his son Davey and Paul, whose own unseen father also looms large. Alan has left Davey to the care of his mother. Davey is bullied, and with no viable alternative he takes revenge on his tormentors, but, in turn, the bullies take revenge on him. This act of torture is animated by a shooter video-game. Killology. Alan in parallel takes revenge on Paul, who is the creator of the game. Paul describes the pain and anger that has damaged him, and skewed his own morality, because his own unseen scornful father only sees his failings.

There are a few convenient leaps in these narratives, but these devices are easily forgiven as they get to the core of the humiliations that fuel the violent reactions. There is no proselytising from Mr Owen, no glib answers and no simple resolutions even if he does explore the possibility of good in one of the apparent narratives. Monologues are, of course, brilliant story telling vehicles as they make us, the audience, create detailed pictures in the theatre of our minds (sorry for the unquestioning dualism here – just run with it). Yet sometimes this means the emotional power is compromised. Not here. This really packs a visceral punch.

Rachel O’Riordan (the artistic director of the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff) directs the work with flexed efficiency amplified by the set of Gary McCann and the sound world of Sam Jones. An awful lot is asked of all three actors but they respond magnificently. Sean Gleeson captures the sense of Alan as a broken man with no hope of redemption. Richard Mylan turns Paul into a repellent nihilist but still invokes our compassion as we learn what shaped him. And Sion Daniel Young as Davey simply astonishes.