The Night Watch

Sarah Waters, adapted by Hattie Naylor
Original Theatre Company
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

The Night Watch Credit: Mark Douet
The Night Watch Credit: Mark Douet
The Night Watch Credit: Sam Charrington

I must admit I have never read Sarah Waters acclaimed novel but as the author of Tipping the Velvet maybe I should have been more prepared for the subject matter. However, according to the publicity, I was expecting a play about the effects of the Second World War on a mixed group of Londoners—a "tragic, tender and beautifully poignant portrait of four ordinary people".

What we got was a confusing, rambling, impenetrable production about lesbian women and gay men set on a very dark stage in permanent gloom, with such a complicated plot that even if the play had been written looking forward rather than backward I don’t think it would have helped.

To make matters worse, some of the actors play dual characters but not having read the programme beforehand it was impossible to tell if these were aliases or new characters and their inclusion in scenes often did not move the story forward or was fairly incidental to the plot.

We start in 1947 just after the war with Kay, a lone woman seemingly broken by the war and leading a tormented life, with one friend that she regularly visits, a lesbian mechanic called Mickey. She lives in the same house as a Christian Science doctor who receives regular visits from a boy called Duncan, who was in prison during the war and now works in a factory, and his ‘uncle’, who turns out to be actually his old prison warden and someone he is now in a relationship with. He’s estranged from his family for reasons unknown, including a sister called Viv who runs a dating agency with her friend Helen, who is in love with a woman called Julia. Then Robert Frazer turns up—he’s an old cellmate of Duncan (and was maybe in love with him in prison) and is now a journalist. All these people have been affected by war—they are all broken or damaged in some way. We know that by the fact they stare into the dark a lot and mumble about their feelings.

The second half goes back to 1941 when Kay is in the ambulance service with Mickey and is having a relationship with Helen who is also having a relationship with Julia. Duncan and Robert are in prison and Viv is expecting a baby with her married lover.

There is a lot more hand wringing and monologues about feelings, there’s lots of dark atmospheric lighting and sounds of bombs dropping, but the play is bogged down in static dialogue and static direction, gloomy lighting and an impenetrable plot. There’s no pace, very little drama and very little to invest in emotionally for the audience.

There are some novels that translate well to stage—this isn’t one of them. And you know you’re in trouble when the first five minutes involves the actors moving chairs from one side of the stage to the other in slow motion while staring moodily out to the middle distance.

And there are many scenes that are never developed further and just leave us hanging: we never see the Christian Science woman again; there’s one scene in the dating agency with a Mr Wilson (whoever he is!); Viv’s relationship with her married lover is never explored—it’s all a bit unfinished and frustrating.

The set is really well designed—a bombed-out house fills the back of the stage, with piles of rubble at either side—and is used well throughout.

The actors do their best to instill some life and emotion into the characters: Lewis Mackinnon does well with Duncan’s vulnerability, Malcolm James is a suitably creepy Mr Mundy and Phoebe Pryce does a lot of hand wringing as the lost Kay.

But it’s all far too arty and pretentious to really hit home or deliver what I think it was trying to say: how our past stays with us and shapes the people we become.

A very long two and a half hours which I wouldn’t recommend you sit through unless you’ve read the novel. But on second thoughts, you’re probably just better reading the novel and leaving it at that.

Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes

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