Touring – reviewed at thee New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
Sarah Waters’ best novel, evoking lives during and after the London Blitz, was told backward in time. It is much the same way, indeed, as we meet real people – see at first the way they are now, then gradually on acquaintance roll back through their past year and come to understand. With over a dozen characters, interlinked and significant, it’s a tricky one to dramatise (easier, perhaps, to film in 2010 for TV). But Hattie Naylor’s stage version flowers under the sensitive and poetic direction of Alistair Whatley, and while the seemingly desultory opening scenes may baffle a few strangers to the book, it grows in clarity and drama to become a gripping piece of theatre, a testament.
At its heart is Kay: gallant and brave, “more of a gentleman than any man”, coming of age in an ambulance crew in 1941 among the quiet heroes who saw horrors and returned to cocoa and comradely banter. Phoebe Pryce is perfect for the role, tall and boyish, but in those early post-war scenes is a kind of wandering ghost, going out little, visibly in private trauma.
She is boarding with the kindly but dotty Christian Scientist Mrs Leonard, among whose patients is arthritic, emotionally riven Mr Mundy (Malcolm James) and his “nephew” Duncan: Lewis Mackinnon, visibly the most damaged of all, cowering and awkward, veteran of something we will only learn later. There’s Fraser, the conscientious objector who shared his cell, and more, and reappears as a journalist; and the other women, Viv and Julia and Helen and Mickey, variously involved with Kay.
Hard to imagine, now, having the city bombed night after night with a heavy toll of death and horror (dreading more mutilated bodies of children, ambulance crewwoman Mickey blithely sets out in her tin hat hoping for “a slightly injured pink grandmother with a bag of boiled sweets). Hard too to remember that attempted suicide still meant a prison term, as did ‘procuring an abortion’, that conscientious objects had their own agonies in a world where their friends were dying, and that lesbian affairs – though not illegal – were best kept hidden. But as the back-stories unfold in the second half, the staging serves to make vivid the raids, the rubble, the quiet moments, the fear and courage and strangeness of that wartime world.
Sometimes, as when an air raid makes the prisoners in their tiny lit square shiver in dread , while out in the town a betrayal of love is taking place amid the wreckage, scenes can interlock at the same time. When Malcolm James’ Munby the warder sings “A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”, depths of his own eccentricity, loneliness and future open before you. Kay strides and works and loves and loses against a city in flames. Nobody is wholly blessed or wholly damned. It holds you fast. But you’ll love it even more if you know the book.
New Wolsey, Ipswich until 5 October
then touring on to 23 Nov. Edinburgh next, then Coventry, Richmond, Salisbury, Croydon. Original Theatre production.