Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Nocturnal

Juan Mayorga, translated by David Johnston
Gate, Notting Hill
(2009)

Promotional photo

Nocturnal reminds us that the Gate has a long tradition of bringing rather esoteric work from overseas to London. Although Juan Mayorga is Spanish, the sinister atmosphere of this play is more reminiscent of the samizdat writings of the likes of Vaclav Havel from Eastern Europe in the days when the Iron Curtain was firmly closed.

It starts innocently enough in a claustrophobic, box-like set as two neighbours bump into each other in a local cafe. The coincidence is anything but, as Paul Hunter's Short Man begins a slow burning blackmail of the inevitably named Tall Man, Justin Salinger as an intellectual turned by exile into a carer who always does nightshifts.

From there for 90 minutes we follow the interactions of this eccentric pairing and their Short and Tall wives, respectively played by Amanda Lawrence and Justine Mitchell.

At no point do we ever achieve certainty about the characters or their actions in a play that can be deeply unsettling, possibly deliberately intending to have the mysterious qualities of a dream world.

The main theme is sleep, or lack of it. Short Woman suffers, which is understandable with her particular but inconsistent husband. She seeks solace in the form a TV Doctor in a fez. Matthew Dunster gets the semi-jocular tone of a TV charlatan just right in a lovely on-screen cameo.

The evening progresses into both homes and the men's offices, not to mention the reptile house at the zoo, thanks to a clever and highly original animated design by Matthew Walker and Hannah Clark that seems to owe a lot to the not quite Pop Artist, Patrick Caulfield.

The two men gradually move from a seeming love-hate relationship into a mutual acceptance where the balance of power is more equal. At the same time, the relationships with their wives change subtly but irrevocably, as a whole cast of worms begin to turn.

Nocturnal is a play that obliquely addresses the problems of illegal immigration and is certainly not for those who like certainty and closure to their theatrical visits. It can be baffling at times but with director Lyndsey Turner well-served by her cast and in particular the ever-reliable Justin Salinger, it provides a very European entertainment of the kind that we rarely see on this side of the Channel.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher