Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Enlightenment at Hampstead Theatre

Edward Hall begins his first season as Artistic Director at Hampstead Theatre with a new play by Shelagh Stephenson, a writer whose career was shaped by the theatre (her early play The Memory of Water was staged there in the 1990s).

Lia and Nick’s 20-year-old son, Adam, has disappeared while on his gap year. They suspect he may have been caught up in a terrorist attack in Indonesia but can’t be sure. They have been left in an awful limbo; not knowing whether he is alive or dead they are unable to grieve, unable to continue living - Lia has even taken to consulting psychics in her need for answers, for closure.

Meanwhile Joanna, a young film maker, is very keen to televise their story, but while she professes an affinity with Lia - for, as she keeps reminding them, she's "a mother myself" - it’s clear her own career comes first.

Stephenson’s play is – to a point – compelling, the twisty plot keeps the audience guessing and it has a real narrative tug. But the writing is also chilly and clunky and often implausible. Lia spends an awful lot of time dissecting her predicament, to the extent that it clouds out her grief – her words are just words, unanchored to anything resembling real emotion.

There’s an uncertainty of tone to Edward Hall’s production. The early scenes not only suffer from an excess of exposition but they also have an awkward comic edge to them, a whiff of sitcom, especially those featuring Polly Kemp’s perky medium. Fortunately things shift at the play’s midway point and a welcome darkness sets in with the arrival of a mysterious young man into the family home. So significant is this change in gear that it almost feels as if the play could jettison its opening scenes to no ill effect.

The production, when it finally hits its stride, is well-paced and the plot holds the attention but Hall can’t quite disguise the stiffness of some of the writing nor the frequent lapses in credibility. When Paul Freeman, as Lia’s gruff MP father, blusters in at the end and starts behaving bluntly but sensibly it just highlights how frustratingly everyone else has been acting before then.

In a play that touches on the connectedness of things there’s a failure of all the various elements to intermesh. Lia’s many digressions, on chaos theory, the impossibility of trying to protect one’s children from the awful randomness of the world and the human capacity for goodness, seem superfluous to the story being told; one can hear the voice of the writer bleeding through. In amongst this Stephenson occasionally touches on something potent and true, like Lia’s quietly expressed anxiety that if she goes to the cinema with Nick she might enjoy herself, may even laugh, but these moments of emotional complexity are too few and far between.

Francis O’Connor’s sleek, curved white set is very striking, as is the use of projections on the ceilings and walls to create different locations, a park, and most effectively, an airport, but these potentially haunting and evocative visuals don’t quite click with the action on stage; again there’s a failure to completely mesh.

The cast do a decent enough job with the material. Julie Graham just about copes with a role that, though central, feels strangely half-formed and incomplete. Richard Clothier fares slightly better as her husband, Nick, though there’s a chilly impotence to his character too; he has little to do but bristle. It’s Tim Weston-Jones who really stands out, playing this young mixed up interloper with a suitable blend of brightness and menace; the scenes that he’s in are increasingly tense and provide the atmospheric kick the production is crying out for.

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