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The Vertical Hour

David Hare
Oliver Taheri Productions in association with Mini Productions and Park Theatre
Park Theatre (Park 200)

Peter Davison as Oliver and Thusitha Jayasundera as Nadia Credit: Anton Belmonte

In his quiet Shropshire garden, doctor Oliver Lucas is still haunted by a mistake on his part that made him change his life. But why does David Hare begin his play with a brief monologue that has him say so? Is he suggesting we should all admit our errors, and especially politicians face up to theirs?

The Vertical Hour premièred in 2006 on Broadway. Just two years after Stuff Happens had analysed the lead-up to the Iraq War launched by the US and her allies the year before, it again debated attitudes to that invasion and now gets this first London revival as US and British planes reopen air strikes in Iraq, though this time with the legality of Iraqi invitation.

Although Oliver and Nadia, the girlfriend whom his son Philip brings to visit, present a confrontation between a liberal British view against the war and a more pragmatic kind of American idealism, the play is not solely concerned with political issues but with the whole area of responsibility to others, of personal needs and private damage.

Nadia is a former war correspondent who has become a politics professor at Yale. The main part of the play is bookended by scenes with two of her students, who both intend dropping out of their courses.

The first is a rich kid who finds it impossible to question patriotism or capitalism as a way of life (Cameron Cuffe making a confident professional debut), who declares that he’s in love with her and his existing fiancée, an arrangement to unite commercial dynasties. In the second, Pepter Lunkuse plays a girl confusing political judgement with personal problems with a vulnerable naiveté. Both have influence on Nadia’s own behaviour.

The heart of the play, set under the pre-dawn heavens, sees self-confessedly arrogant and selfish Oliver protesting the failures of the Iraq invasion, its results unconsidered or prepared for against what Nadia calls the need for “humane intervention” in cases such as Saddam’s treatment of his people or Balkan ethnic cleansing.

She posits a limited period where support can be effective, the “vertical hour”, a medical term she borrows from the treatment of combat victims when it can be of use. But she also seems to be suggesting that there is a similar limited opportunity to deal with their own problems. Their discussion of his guilt about his marriage, a fatal accident, the consequences of his sixties lifestyle and estrangement from his son and of her handling of relationships may also a similar brief opportunity for correction.

Oliver describes himself as having great self-esteem but little self-confidence. Peter Davison captures exactly that mixture of urbanity and arrogance that he acknowledges typical of doctors, an acidity beneath his politesse.

In contrast, Thusitha Jayasundera makes Nadia Blye much more open. This is a women who was called to the White House to advice the President before the Iraq invasion but who is very self aware. She manages to suggest the tongue-loosening effects of their early hours imbibing while maintaining clarity of presentation.

As well as offering interesting argument, Hare has created intriguing characters, including his son and her lover Philip, who, afraid he wasn't good enough for conventional medicine, became a keep fit personal trainer, building a string of fashionable health and exercise centres in the States.

Finlay Robertson doesn’t make him all six-pack: this boy is recognisably his father’s son but, beneath his seeming blandness, seethes with years of resentment against his father.

But how much of that is a displacement of other problems? Hare seems also to be saying that, personal or ethnic, it is no use blaming conflict on “ancient hatreds”. You have to find current causes and deal with both before you can find solutions whether personally or when acting for a nation.

Of course he doesn’t offer any real answers but a stimulating evening in the theatre looking at both politics and people that Nigel Douglas’s production makes the more effective by being set in designer Charlie Damigos’s serene surroundings.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton