Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Tale of love told backwards will hold you and keep you

Tale of love told backwards will hold you and keep you

The Night Watch | Hexagon, Reading | Wednesday, September 18

THE NIGHT WATCH begins at the end, with characters, disillusioned, in post-war London.

The stage is dark, shadowy, with wisps of smoke and the skeletal structure of a gothic-looking building. And yet, this is a love story — a sad and moving tale of loss.

Kay, played by Phoebe Pryce says in the opening scene that “people’s pasts are more exciting than their future,” and so we begin to delve into the pasts of an array of endearing but pitifully lost characters.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, The Night Watch is superbly dramatised by The Original Theatre Company and it deserves high praise.

It is fearless, sleek and heartbreaking. The set is brave and simple: a table can be a desk, or a rooftop; a house can be a home or a bombed-out ruin. There are piles of rubble stacked at the side for characters to climb on, kiss on, or be rescued from.

There is never much light, the stage is most often cast in a grey gloom, but then with moments of tenderness, playfulness, even comedy, there is a soft orange glow, reminiscent of a London street lamp.

The characters perform an almost spectral trawl through key moments in their lives, beginning in 1947, moving back in time to 1944 and finishing, with hope, in 1941.

This backwards journey cleverly allows the actors to change and shift, depicting the emotional journeys their characters face as they negotiate their way through the Second World War and beyond with true skill. It is gripping, challenging theatre.

During the first half, the pace is slow, as the characters pick up the shattered fragments of their lives after the war, but then, in the second half, as the threads of the plot begin to weave together, the pace quickens.

Bright flashes of light, sudden blasts of sound, rock the theatre. We are in the midst of the Blitz. The characters, reckless, in the face of war, break up relationships, commit infidelities, seek out back street abortions, languish in Pentonville prison.

Throughout it all, stitched into the heart of the story is love. In particular, we follow the love triangle of Julia, played by Izabella Urbanowicz, Kay and Helen, played by Florence Roberts. In an especially poignant scene, Mr Mundy, played by Malcom James, sings A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square at the end of an air raid while Duncan, played by Lewis Mackinnon, and Robert, played by Sam Jenkins-Shaw, embrace, trembling, in their prison cell and Julia and Helen share a forbidden kiss amongst the rubble of the city and the stage.

It is clever staging, breathtaking, immersive. It takes us, the audience, right there, tumbling back in history as the characters battle through their pasts.

The Night Watch doesn’t let you relax for a moment. Even in quiet scenes, there is the soft tick-tock of a clock in the background, or the gentle drip-drip of water on a London street. It is atmospheric and captivating.

Towards the end, Kay delivers a haunting monologue which feels like it has been taken straight from the pages of the book.

It is poetic and beautiful but troubling and insists on reflection. “I’ve got lost in the rubble,” she says as she laments her past, and it is true, as the cast take their final bow, that it is hard to leave the burning streets, the debris, because it all felt so real.

Until Saturday.

Laura Healy

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