REVIEW: Skylight, Wyndhams Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy in Skylight. Wyndhams Theatre
Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy in Skylight. Wyndhams Theatre

Wyndhams Theatre
17 June 2014
5 Stars

What is the mark of excellence in acting? Is it measured by the response on the night of the performance, the way the actor speaks to you as an audience member, makes you believe in his/her character and takes you on an emotional, emphatic journey? Is it measured by how you feel while watching or how you feel when the curtain comes down or how you feel later, at home, having a cuppa, a glass of wine or brushing your teeth? Is it a matter of how well you sleep or what you first think about the best time you awake? Or is it when, much later, in idle moments, you suddenly find yourself remembering snatches of the performance, as if it haunts you, stays burnt onto your sub-consciousness?

Whatever the answer, the performances in David Hare’s remarkable Skylight, now being revived by Stephen Daldry at the Wyndham’s Theatre, tick all those boxes. Waiting for an email to open, the image of Carey Mulligan’s Kyra, her mouth set in determination but with lip trembling, her eyes blazing with anger, a tear recalcitrantly running down her cheek pops into mind. Stirring the tea, waiting for it to brew to the right degree of brown, and suddenly feeling the outpouring of distressed, fulminating rage, mercurially mixed with plain incomprehension, from Bill Nighy’s imposingly rich and thoroughly preposterous Tom. Sitting on the tube, suddenly smiling at the thought of the gentle, broken but hopeful Edward (face of Burberry, Matthew Beard) and his silly but gloriously ambitious breakfast delivery from the Ritz.

These are performances of great skill, depth, nuance and each holds a shimmering seductive afterlife. It’s glorious stuff. Performances which linger, endure.

Hare’s play premiered in 1995, as England was recovering from about fifteen years of Conservative Government, from the time when money was deemed more valuable and important than individuals, families, communities and industries. Hare’s play is a stinging rebuke of those values, that time.

But it is also the final act of a passionate love story and a waltz, or a series of waltzes, between people who love each other but can’t be together. It sings, shouts, sobs and spars. There are silences worthy of Pinter. But it is real, absorbing, and sublimely thrilling.

Bob Crowley’s set is astonishing. Kyra’s grim Kensal Rise apartment provides the main playing space, reminiscent of times past, of understood living poverty and a sense of unabiding entrapment. It’s quintessentially dingy. The sense of deep impenetrable cold is profound. Everything works but no one would want to live there.

But the inspired thing Crowley does is to make the walls of the flat moveable, so they can withdraw to constantly demonstrate the confinement Kyra endures. There is no exterior wall, so the passage outside the flat is visible, as is the courtyard and trees in the complex and the tall, blank high-rise building which faces onto Kyra’s building.

The sensation of being watched, judged, is omni-present as is the sense of society, of being part of something but separated from it. And in the final scenes, when the snow falls, there is a refreshing beauty to the surrounds which suggests hope, transition and evolution. Finally, as Kyra and Edward share the impromptu, silly breakfast, like two errant children playing truant, the lights in the watching bank of apartments come irregularly to life – underlining the start of a new cycle, the hope of things to come.

Crowley is an undeniable genius and his remarkable set here enhances and embellishes Hare’s text in extraordinary, very clever ways. His use of empty height in the remarkably tall set is especially clever – one feels Kyra is at the very bottom, but, at the same time, she is free. And capable of reaching great heights. It’s the startling dichotomy of her character expressed in the set.

The plot is convoluted and simple. Tom was married to Alice for a long time. Edward was their eldest son. Tom met and fell passionately in love with Kyra when she was 18. Kyra fell for him, found him intoxicating. Tom was a self-made millionaire – an East End lad turned international superstar chef and restauranteur. Kyra lived and worked with the family for six years, adored Alice and the kids and only continued the affair with Tom on the basis that if Alice ever found out about it, Kyra would leave. One day, Alice finds some letters Kyra wrote to Tom, the affair is revealed and Kyra walks out of Tom’s (and Alice’s and Edward’s) life without a word.

Three years later and Alice has died, Kyra is working as a teacher and Edward comes to find her, to discover why she left. Later that same night, Tom turns up wanting answers of his own. Kyra and Tom are still in love but neither is willing to live in the other’s world.

The dance between the three characters, as history is faced, the present is evaluated and the possibilities of the future dissected and smashed makes for the meat of the piece. The seasoning comes from Hare’s scalpel to British society, class, aspirations, fears and compromises. Daldry’s deft, spare and precise direction sears both sides of the argument and squeezes all of the juice and marrow out of the possibility the play offers.

Nighy is terrific as the bombastic money-loving patriarch desperate to have his young woman back, uncertain why or how he lost her and completely uncomprehending why she would rather the squalor of her flat to a mansion in Wimbledon and a life of luxury with him. He paces like a panther, all lean and silky and vicious, explodes with a ferocity that comes from kitchen life and falls apart when faced with his lover’s cold refusal to succumb. He is funny, apoplectic and totally real.

Mulligan is gloriously fragile in one way but steely and completely calm in another way. She walks the line between young impressionable lover and eloquent, worldly and farsighted woman with impeccable skill. She rips open the soul of Kyra, lays it bare and then refashions it, heals herself, right there on the Wyndham’s stage. It’s a beautiful, measured and gripping portrayal.

Beard is a revelation. At first, he seems overblown, but as the play progresses it becomes clear that his work as the play opens is splendidly judged. For Edward is a broken, lost, overdone man-child when first encountered and Kyra’s absence from his life and the effect of that absence on his parents has fashioned him thus. His brief, fractured encounter with Kyra, however, does much to heal him (and her), so when he reappears, the change is at first surprising but soon makes complete sense. The new dawn is signalled not just by the rising sun in the sky; the rising son with the breakfast is equally evocative.

This is the kind of first class work for which the West End is famous. Luminous, enthralling and unforgettable.

Book Tickets to Skylight

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