A emotional slow burn from end to beginning
Original Theatre and York Theatre Royal bring a timely production of Hattie Naylor’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel to Warwick Arts Centre as part of their national tour. Starting in gloomy post-war Britain, the reverse timeframe then takes us back into the war years.
In a Sapphic triangle, ambulance driver Kay, played by Phoebe Pryce, leaves her lover, Julia (Izabella Urbanowicz), for Helen, a strong performance by Florence Roberts. The darkly atmospheric opening introduces us to these characters and a trio of men who have a shared past and a family with a secret.
The groupings emerge somewhat confusingly in the first act. This may be due to the compression of a 500 page novel into a two hour play or Waters’ intent to defer audience gratification.
Familiarity with the original book would definitely be an asset. The lengthy introduction of Duncan’s relationship with Mr Mundy (Malcolm James) seems to distract from the more central liaisons. Duncan is played with tenderness by Lewis MacKinnon. A later tableau in his prison cell with Robert Fraser, played equally convincingly by Sam Jenkins-Shaw, has a real poignancy.
The lighting and drab scenery conjure the period well. As the rubble literally piles up and the war intensifies there is a real sense of the chaos surrounding chaotic lives. The utility clothing, demob suits and uniforms are all a natural fit with tea in cups and saucers, cigarettes in silver cases and period hairstyles. The Victory Roll is definitely due a comeback. As an East Ender of a certain age the evocative use of Noel Coward’s London Pride was also rather Proustian.
At the start of the play Kay states that people’s pasts are more interesting than their futures. In the second act, as the action takes us back in time, we gain insight into the events that shaped the characters With possibly less dramatic tension, as we have already seen the “ending”, we are drawn into the emotional lives of the cast. Nonetheless, our attention is held by curiosity from the set up in the first act.
Contemporary attitudes to conscientious objectors, unwed mothers and homosexual love are explored within the temporal framework of this assured production. In the end it sort of works. The final scene which takes us back to the beginning, when Helen and Kay meet, is genuinely touching and has some of the emotional punch that Waters and Naylor intended.
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