Amelia Oakley’s production is an exquisitely paced exploration into the human condition, a deeply political play that hits you in the gut when you least expect it, says Jonathan Ben Shaul.
I must admit that I am not a massive fan of David Hare’s writing style, and although that trepidation came with me as I entered the theatre, this show surprised me in how well it handled Hare’s somewhat clunky writing and forced me to reconsider.
The story centres on Kyra, a twenty-something overqualified school teacher who lives alone in the outer fringes of “outer Siberia”, just off the M5. One freezing cold winter’s evening she is visited by her ex-lover, Tom Sergeant, whom she has not seen since the end of their six-year love affair. Tom’s wife has died of cancer and he has been driven back to her to reminisce, confront and rediscover who they were and what they have now become. The play is concerned with all aspects of the human condition, unflinchingly tackling politics, guilt, death and love, forcing the audience to reconsider their own positions on all of these topics.
The play opens to Michael Morrison’s simplistic but detailed stage design. Full of Ikea furniture, art deco prints and the mess expected of a twenty-one year old’s apartment, the audience immediately felt like they were stepping into Kyra’s world. The attention to detail in the set combined with Jamie Rycroft’s gentle blues in the background really told you everything you needed to know about Kyra before she even began speaking. You knew immediately that she was a teacher, liked blues and old novels, and these facts are confirmed as the show progresses. The fact that many of the kitchen appliances were actually functioning also really drew the audience in: the boiling of the kettle, the chopping of the vegetable etc. The sound design, stage design and direction worked wonderfully together to craft a believable and instantly engaging world onstage.
Coupled with the stage design was the decision to have Georgie Henley’s Kyra onstage as the audience walked in – and boy was she magnificent. Before the lights even went down the audience was hushed, utterly transfixed by the realism and attention to detail of Henley’s movements; she moved from marking to flipping through a takeaway menu to laughing at the children’s silly mistakes in a manner that conveyed the wandering of a human mind authentically and humorously. It was the first sign that we were about to witness a masterclass in naturalistic acting from her.
And indeed, as the play went on, she had the audience in the palm of her hand, taking us on a journey through confusion, humour and heartache. Henley gave one of the most honest and unapologetic performances I have seen. From tiny facial expressions which betrayed massive complexity of character, she was as expressive while speaking as when she wasn’t – utterly magnificent.
Will Bishop’s Tom countered her quiet bookish role with a confident, laddish arrogance. While roles like this can often be a bit contrived and actually quite boring, Bishop played the moments in which Tom’s mask slips with depth and maturity. He kept the audience engaged and even in sympathy with a character that, on the surface, seems so unlikeable and that should be applauded. Tom Taplin’s Edward was simply adorable – he instantly gained the audience’s affection and especially nearing the end of the play he gained audible ‘aaaws’ with his naïve and thoughtful performance.
The direction too was spot on. Naturalistic direction at its best should be completely invisible and this was certainly the case in this production. The choice of movements at certain points in the script was so flawless it became invisible, so natural you’d forget to mention it. The audience could see everything that went on without movement feeling constrained or unnatural.
There were, however, a few moments of weakness in this production. The scene changes at times were unpolished and the use of offstage was slightly confusing. Furthermore, perhaps due in part to the script, the anger seemed a bit forced and unconvincing, but this was more than paid off with the following heartbreak which was completely heart-wrenching.
Overall this show was a wonderful and challenging way to spend an evening. The performances, particularly Henley’s, were pretty much flawless and the direction was also fantastic.
This play will pull you into the world it creates, make you deeply sympathise with its characters and you will feel sad to leave them behind.