Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Love and Politics in the 1990s

I was thinking the other day that we seem to be in a very good season for excellent performances onstage at the moment - Michael Xavier, Joanna Riding (Pajama Game), Julian Ovenden, Geoffrey Streatfeild, Lewis Reeves, Matt Bardock, Richard Cant (My Night With Reg), Clive Wood, Eve Best, Phil Daniels (Antony & Cleopatra),  Helen McCrory (Medea), Billie Piper, Aaron Neil, Robert Glenister (Great Britain)... and now you can add two others to that list, Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in the revival of David Hare's SKYLIGHT at the Wyndhams Theatre.

I never saw the original production of the play which starred Michael Gambon and Lia Williams which did the usual hop, skip and jump of National Theatre - West End - Broadway.  After it's Broadway run it reopened in London with Bill Nighy in the Gambon role and he is revisiting the role again, 18 years later.

This production also has Carey Mulligan in her West End debut and she was the reason I wanted to see it as her performances in AN EDUCATION, NEVER LET ME GO, DRIVE and SHAME have been exceptional.  Luckily she did not disappoint, with both her and Nighy giving sparky, memorable performances.

Set in that ancient, long-gone time - the early 1990s - the action takes place in a small council flat in West London which Kyra is subletting from a friend.  Kyra is a teacher in a struggling school in East Ham and has a quiet, untroubled private life.

One wintry night, Kyra is surprised to receive a visit from Edward, the 18 year-old son of her ex-lover Tom, a wealthy restaurateur.  She learns that Edward's mother died from cancer a year ago and that father and son are struggling with each other's unspoken grief, sharing a house that is no longer a home.  Edward is also still angry that Kyra walked out of all their lives three years before with no word of explanation.  Edward, bristling with the sulkiness of youth, skulks off but who should appear later also unannounced?  Tom turns up, saying he just happens to have been in the area.  Just by chance he also has an unopened bottle of Whisky.

Prowling the small flat like a lion in a cage, straightening and unstraightening her school books, dragging a chair out with his foot only to push it back again, Tom obviously has come on a mission which slowly is revealed along with what really happened three years before.  Although their story starts six years before that...

That's when Kyra had landed a waitress job in Tom and his wife's Chelsea restaurant soon after arriving in London.  She proved indispensable to the couple and their children, eventually moving in to the family home. Needless to say, Kyra and Tom were soon lovers although she said she would leave if his wife ever found out.  When she did, Kyra left with no goodbyes.  Soon after Tom's wife was diagnosed with cancer and he did all he could to make her life comfortable in their home.  Finally he admits to Kyra that he is there to try and get her back but Kyra is a different person now and refuses to give up her new life, although she cannot help her old feelings surfacing.

What soon emerges in their barbed conversations - and out-and-out arguing - is that Tom, while railing at the political correctness and woolly liberalism that he sees all around him, can no more understand Kyra's wish to travel across London every day to deliberately work in a depressing job than she can for his ever-growing need for money and his selfish world view.

In their night of long knives, we see both sides of their argument - yes, Tom cared for his dying wife turning their home into her holistic paradise but was he doing it out of genuine love or guilt over the affair and yes, Kyra cares passionately for the sink-estate children she teaches but is her hair-shirt approach to life just a reaction against her upper-middle-class upbringing - is she a working class tourist?

Bill Nighy was on excellent form as Tom the misanthrope ex-lover, railing at a changing world while attempting to repeat the past with Kyra.  His comic timing was wonderful, gaining huge laughs at his withering responses to both life and Kyra's attempts at carving out a new career, as well as the physicality of his performance too, you could feel his revulsion having to handle the lump of cheese Kyra was intending to put in her ragu!  But underneath it all was a loneliness, an emptiness and his short-lived happiness at their resumption of intimacy was touching.

Carey Mulligan had a wonderful sense of gravitas as Kyra, firmly believing that she was making a difference to people's lives and ideologically stronger than either of her male visitors.  Her sly sense of humour was delightfully played and she also suggested the quiet gnawing loneliness of a young woman deliberately cutting herself off from love.  I do hope she makes the return to stage often, she is too good an actress to be lost to film.  She also proves she can multi-task by acting and cooking onstage at the same time!  And it was real cooking too... the smell of frying onions was delicious!!!

Matthew Beard was effective as the stroppy Edward - an archetypal teenage boy that his father likens to a character from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS - who surprises both Kyra and the audience in the final scene.

Stephen Daldrey directs with his customary insight and stages the ebb-and-flow conversations with variety and pace.  Bob Crowley's set design conjured up the drab flat perfectly, it's invisible inner walls seen against a life-like block of council flats with lights going on and off in the windows showing that, while Tom and Kyra are battling each other, life goes on elsewhere.

An excellent revival of a fascinating play, as relevant now as it was in 1995.

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