Paul T Davies reviews The Night Watch, a co-production between Original Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal now playing at New Wolsey Theatre.
The Night Watch
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich. (And on tour)
1 October 2019
Sarah Water’s classic novel, The Night Watch, is told in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1947, then taking us back to the height of the Blitz in 1944 and then in 1941. The lead character, Kay, describes how she likes walking into the cinema halfway through a screening, then staying for the second showing, as people’s pasts are so interesting, and that’s the device the novel takes. Hattie Naylor’s adaptation for this Original Theatre Company co-production with York Theatre Royal sensibly retains the reverse storytelling, but it’s a play that requires a lot of attention. The characters are disparate, shattered, at the beginning of the play, and the pieces are gradually put together as the play progresses, and we understand the events that led to their stories. The problem is, all the characters speak as if they’re in a novel, and the actors have to deliver chunks of exposition, some of it overlong and clumsy.
There are many strengths, not least that Waters places lesbian relationships at the heart of her story, and adds Duncan, a young man imprisoned for his homosexuality after his lover commits suicide and his own attempt fails. We know he and Robert Fraser know each other from prison, but we find out in Act Two that Fraser was a contentious objector. The design by David Woodhead cleverly evokes the height of the Blitz, and the ensemble work well to convey the story. Lewis Mackinnon is convincingly distressed and broken as Duncan, and Sam Jenkins-Shaw is an excellent Fraser, and also a funny, Welsh, gentle ambulance officer Cole. Louise Coulthard is an engaging and moving Viv, her story revealed during the night raid is quite powerful, and the love triangle between Kay, (Phoebe Pryce), Helen, (Florence Roberts) and Julia, (Izabella Urbanowicz), is convincingly portrayed.
The night of the air raid in 1944 is powerfully staged by director Alastair Whatley and a definite highlight, but it’s a long time coming. It isn’t helped by the fact that the majority of characters are posh, restrained, English people who talk very slowly, and each act opens with an overlong, and irrelevant, movement sequence. (Act Two begins with the cast all wearing gas masks, which prompted me to mutter, “Are you my Mummy?”, which only Doctor Who fans will get!) Overall, it’s worth sticking with, as the revelations are enjoyable because we have already seen the results at the beginning of the play, and the piece is beautifully atmospheric throughout.