Bridge Theatre, London – until 30 March 2019
In well over 30 years of being a director, it seems scarcely credible that it is only now that Nicholas Hytner is turning his hand to directing a play written by a woman. For all of his considerable contributions to the British theatre ecology, it is a startling and sobering statistic that demonstrates the scale of the problem faced by those who would (rightfully) change the status quo.
The play in question here is Alys, Always, written by Lucinda Coxon from Harriet Lane’s 2012 novel. And it proves a serviceable psychological thriller of sorts that sits a little too cosily in the middle class-baiting madeleine-scented air of the Bridge Theatre. It is glossy and magazine-spread chic, undoubtedly shinily cast (Joanne Froggatt, Robert Glenister) but rarely essential.
Froggatt plays Frances, a “diary monkey” for the arts section of a Sunday newspaper who is struggling to see any way off the bottom rung off the ladder. When she witnesses a car crash and comforts the driver in her final moments, the last thing she’s expecting is opportunity but when she discovers that the woman was the wife of a famous writer, Frances seizes her chance.
Asked by the family to share those final moments, she gets her feet under their table and once there, resolves to never let them leave, inveigling her way into the affections first of distraught daughter Polly and then patriarch Laurence. Her new connections spill over into her work life too, boosting her prospects and awakening an ambition that becomes increasingly ruthless.
So Frances is revealed as something of an anti-hero, the type of woman who’ll give you a hug but be rifling through your handbag as soon as you nip to the loo. Coxon, though Lane, makes the case though that everyone is like that. Her parents are hard work, her journalist colleagues test her patience and the Kytes are upper class twits to a man – all are deserving of what they get?
It’s a question that never really gets resolved and so the play ends up feeling slight and inconsequential. Froggatt is excellent as the near ever-present Frances but even as she takes the audience into her confidence, she remains ephemeral with no sense who she is (does she have no friends?) or what her sociopathic tendencies are pushing for. With no obvious resting place for our sympathies, it’s all a bit alienating.
As a result, Sylvestra Le Touzel as Frances’ boss Mary has far more impact (I could listen to her swear all day) in a quality supporting cast and it is always good to see Simon Manyonda on stage. Bob Crowley’s sleek design doesn’t quite hit the mark though and the use of a live cellist (Maddie Cutter playing Grant Olding’s score) smacks of trying too hard to look classy, simply echoing the hollowness at the heart here.