Bridge Theatre, London – until 23 June 2018
The elegant new Bridge continues to demonstrate – firmly — that it is uniquely versatile. After one traditional tragicomedy (Young Marx) we had a swirling mob-riot immersive Caesar, then an intimate pastoral quartet, and now the 900-seat space offers a bare square of light, thrust forward for intimacy. And 90 minutes of sparse projections, artful lighting, a single hospital bed and chair and one narrator talking about a not particularly exceptional life.
Risky? On the other hand, the performer is Laura Linney, fiercely intelligent star of screen and Broadway, the source bestseller is by the Pulitzer winner Elizabeth Strout, the adaptor Rona Munro who dazzled us with the James Plays at Nicholas Hytner’s NT. And the director is no less than Richard Eyre. So, not such a risk.
And if you have a taste for this particular tone of intense, forensic emotional autobiography with a strong tang of the creative-writing course, it’s top of the genre. And it isn’t entirely fair to say “not particularly exceptional’, because Strout’s novel sets her heroine – a successful writer – at a moment of private crisis. She is remembering nine weeks in hospital with some undiagnosed serious condition, apart from her rather unengaged husband and two small daughters. But to her surprise, her mother, long estranged, turns up and sits by her bed relating nicely sour stories of old neighbours.
It reignites the writer’s memories of a fairly grim and lonely childhood in the Illinois croplands, in an isolated house without books, television or friends, and a father emotionally war-damaged and difficult. The twist is that Lucy Barton, rather than being a bit irritated and wanting to get the hell out, finds immense solace in her mother’s undemonstrative but positive presence. A slow catharsis takes place.
Linney is brilliant, evoking in turn both Lucy and the twanging, tough-nut mother. Elegant projections give us the Chrysler building outside the window, memories of wide fields , of her first married apartment and of the louche , alarming but stimulating freedom of New York and its people during the AIDS crisis. The strongest aspect is her evocation of childhood loneliness and a sense of never quite identifying and belonging, even in marriage. It tips over, though, typical of its post-Salinger genre, into a righteous affirmation of writerliness and its “ruthless” need to centre on itself and tell its “only story”.
And sometimes that can wear you down a bit. Make you feel a bit – well, I dunno, British. Suddenly the spell breaks and you wish she’d talk about something else. I would pay a lot to see the wonderful Linney, in a space and production like this, telling any number of other stories. But maybe not this Strout one. But it’s a class act, and could well be absolutely for you.