‘The play’s eye is pitilessly sharp’: ALYS, ALWAYS – Bridge Theatre ★★★★

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Bridge Theatre, London – until 30 March 2019

Late to the party, due to holiday, but couldn’t miss Nicholas Hytner’s bit of mischief: after his years of being being alternately feted and rubbished in print, he displays directorial glee in sending up the noisome denizens of a broadsheet arts desk. Lucinda Coxon’s black-hearted comedy of modern media manners is the tale of a mousy newspaper underling, Frances, who happens to be first on the scene on an icy Suffolk night when Alys, lovely wife of a celebrated writer, is killed (it’s a hauntingly staged car crash for those of us who drive icily home from Manningtree most theatre nights, I winced). But in the world Frances inhabits, a celebrity tragedy is a foothold.

The play’s eye is pitilessly sharp. Sylvestra le Touzel is a queen-bee book editor, snarling at the idly bitchy Oliver (Simon Manyonda) “I pay you to party with the PRs”; Manyonda “a good writer when he bothers” chucks books straight in the bin and hoovers up freebies; Frances is everyone’s dogsbody, the rarely-seen Editor obsessed with “clicks and pods”, and they are all afflicted by hot-desking and wistful longings for a Russian with a cheque-book.

Sacked, Oliver snarls “the ship’s sinking, one rat leaving won’t change that”. Gales of giggling met lines about the meretricious dazzle of arts-cum-celebrity media and its familiar rumours of nobodies whose novel got optioned by Spielberg; Alys’ memorial service is crammed with broadsheet-editors, style icons and Melvyn Bragg. Satisfyingly niche: wish I’d been there on press night, because it’s not so much ‘preaching to the choir’ as putting sneezing-powder on the pews, setting fire to its hymn-books and blaspheming its saints.

Joanne Froggatt’s Frances ably meets the feline subtlety  of the text: she is kind and humane with the dying woman in the Suffolk darkness, like any nice girl;  but asked by the police to meet the family and tell about the mother’s last words she refuses. Until she learns how famous they are, goes, and can’t resist embroidering sentimentally. She becomes a mentor by the daughter (a nice ghastly rich-teen turn by Leah Gayer) and joins the great and good in their gorgeous second home by the sea. As she turns to narrate asides to us – it’s very novelistic – Froggatt’s little shrugs of rising satisfaction at each opportunist success is perfect. So  is the way her editor suddenly treats her with respect.

In the interval one fears that part 2 might be less beguiling,  as her expedition into the Kite family’s glittering lives reveals (quelle surprise) that all was not idyllic after all and the great man himself is up for a fling.   But Coxon has  wicked  fun  with the spoilt rich kids ,  the self-absorbed writer ,  and our heroine’s ever deeper encroachings into the dead Alys’ life and possessions (an artful Manderley theme here, but with a savvier heroine so closer to All About Eve).  When her annexation of the great writer becomes deeper (“Second shot at happiness for tragic brainbox”  cries the Mail-Online) she has new decisions to make.  Like how useful a conquest he really is,  this nicely moth-eaten Robert Glenister who ooofs! at his bad back and  reaches, as the arts journos point out,  the  stage of “sciatica and falling sales” .   But once Frances has changed the locks against his children, copped the Arts Ed job and had her editor to dinner,  she may not stick it as long as patient Alys.  Why would you?

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.  to 30 March

rating  four

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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