Bridge Theatre, London – until 30 March 2019
When I first heard that the Bridge Theatre was doing an adaptation of Harriet Lane’s novel Alys, Always I immediately went out and bought the book. I read it in a couple of sittings (it’s not exactly War and Peace) and was very confused as to why, out of all the books in the world, this one was getting a stage treatment.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike the book. It’s a decent little paperback, really well written and entertaining but – at the risk of sounding like an horrific snob – it’s the sort of thing that I would read on a sunlounger, y’know? The sort of thing you buy for a longhaul flight and leave on the plane. It’s fine, it’s not exactly earth shattering. So why go to the effort of adapting it?
And cards on the table, The Bridge’s super stylish production never really answered that question for me. I still don’t fully understand why this show exists. That said, I’m glad that it does because I found it so much better than the book and, somewhat to my surprise, actually really enjoyed it.
Lucinda Coxon is responsible for the stage treatment that deserves much of the credit for making me think again. For me, what she’s done is to take a book that desperately wants, but never quite manages, to be a psychological thriller and turn it instead into a dark satire on both the ‘how the other half live’ obsession of modern society and the decline of the print newspaper.
Cast in this light, the motivations of central character Frances (the newspaper sub editor who steals, literally and figuratively her way into fashionable London literary society with an ever increasing ruthlessness) become more understandable. Her newspaper is facing budget cuts. She works on the arts desk. So of course being seen by her boss at fashionable literary parties/funerals/stumbling out of The Ivy with fashionable literary people helps her career and is thus something to be encouraged – and built upon.
She also becomes a more sympathetic character, and the whole plot therefore more engaging, because which of us, honestly, wouldn’t love to be accidentally sucked into a more glamorous life? Even if most people would – I hope! – not go to the length Frances does to achieve it, Coxon’s version of her is a far more empathetic and credible character than the one in the book.
The stage version is also much funnier than the book, something that is particularly realised in the very deliberate split between the scenes set in the newspaper office (funny) and those split elsewhere (more serious, generally). Punctuating the action with comedy this way really works, both as comedy in and of itself but also drawing attention to the (real or imagined) threat that the demise of the paper poses to Frances and her colleagues. It’s the interplay between the two sets of scenes and the two sets of circumstances that make the drama compelling and believable.
Director Nicholas Hytner’s production is as slick as I’ve come to expect from The Bridge. Bob Crowley’s clever, minimalist design is both functionally impressive and aesthetically cool. Centred around a semi-transparent screen that divides up the action (I loved its use as the wall of the editor’s office in the newspaper scenes – the shadowy presence lurking behind it ominous even after he turns out to be a fairly avuncular Irishman), it is particularly effective when used as a canvass for Luke Hall’s clever video design. The show opens with a car crash, the chaos of which is really nicely captured this way. Grant Olding’s music, often played live by cellist Maddie Cutter, is haunting yet modern. Jon Clark’s lighting is gorgeous and austere. It’s not the most imaginative thing The Bridge has ever done – its immersive Julius Caesar has set that particular bar very high (I’m so psyched for A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year) – but it is, rather like its lead character, ruthlessly effective and beautiful.
Finally, the show is brilliantly acted. As lead character Frances, Joanne Froggatt is – I think literally – never off stage. Impressive energy levels and stamina notwithstanding, her Frances is perfect and sold with utter conviction. If Lucinda Coxon’s writing did much to help me believe in Frances, Froggatt’s performance is indispensable in sealing the deal. I was sceptical about this casting. And boy was I wrong to be. As love interest/prime target Laurence, Robert Glenister (The Best Glenister, even if brother Philip now hosts a gloriously trashy true crime show on my favourite, extremely high numbered, Sky channel) is as watchable and compelling as ever. I’ve never seen him give a bad performance and this is no exception. In the supporting roles, the mighty Sylvestra Le Touzel shines as Frances’ imperious arts desk editor boss, Simon Manyonda is a daft joy as her work rival, arrogant writer Oliver, whilst Danny Ashok provides some much needed heart and honesty as the one seemingly quite normal character in the whole piece, Sid.
Look, as a piece of drama Alys, Always isn’t the best thing you’ll ever see. It’s unlikely to be troubling the Olivier nominations next year I wouldn’t think. But, actually, I sort of don’t care. It’s really good fun; sheer entertainment with a little bit of something to mentally chew over after the show. It’s also really well done, both from the cast and the creative team. Worth your time, and more so than the book by some margin for my money.
Alys, Always is at The Bridge until 30th March.
I saw this one in its penultimate preview and paid £35 for C39 in Gallery 3 – my favourite spot to sit in this theatre.