Speaking in Tongues

Andrew Bovell
Duke of York's Theatre

Publicity photo

It is star week in London. Ignoring many other fine actors, the four major openings this week have featured Anna Friel, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lucas an, at the Duke of York's Theatre, popular Life on Mars actor John Simm.

Speaking in Tongues, which was the source for the film Lantana, is the theatrical equivalent of a Sudoku puzzle. After half an hour of a little over two in all, viewers have a right to be at the very least a little confused. Even 1½ hours in, they will still probably not be more than halfway to a full understanding.

It is only shortly before the final curtain falls that they might feel fulfilled. In fact, except for the most cerebrally minded, it may well take a couple of days after leaving the theatre before many finally manage to get all of their numbers lined up.

Australian playwright Andrew Bovell, who tantalised audiences at Almeida earlier in the year with his latest offering When the Rain Stops Falling, clearly enjoys slow burn with facts and meaning only revealed at intervals, although it is obviously his intention to complete the puzzle by the end of the night.

Rehearsals must have been challenging for director Toby Frow and his four actors since in the first couple of scenes, the performers speak their lines simultaneously, in pairs. This has the strange effect of making what should be very intimate far more detached, allowing viewers to reflect coolly on what they see.

Two married couples unenthusiastically attempt unfaithfulness in a shabby hotel but achieve far more guilt than pleasure. The inevitable swap over takes us back into their respective homes where semi-confessions lead to temporary separations.

This can be both funny and heart-rending, saying something about love and marriage but far more about the deep loneliness that lengthy monogamy can engender.

It is only after the interval that some rather beautifully spoken and poetic speeches that had seemed of little relevance come back to haunt those on either side of the fourth wall.

At that stage, we meet four new characters played by the same actors, each suffering from some kind of anguish. Once again, they speak at the same time but now different lines. Throwaway lines about missing people take centre stage in what becomes a metaphysical mystery story.

Speaking in Tongues does not have quite the same dramatic impact as When the Rain Stops Falling but is still an intriguing piece of theatre. It is helped no end by the stylish modern designs of Ben Stones, a man whose visual sense would be perfectly suited to Film Noir.

It is also well acted by Simm and Ian Hart representing insecure masculinity and their female counterparts, Kerry Fox and Lucy Cohu, who get a little more contrast between their own pairs of characters.

Speaking in Tongues is definitely not for those who like a nice easy night out at the theatre. In order to follow the plot, it is necessary to concentrate throughout but those that are willing to invest a few brain cells may well feel fully rewarded by a climax that still does not provide all of the answers to the numerous questions that are asked.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for Speaking in Tongues

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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