Wednesday 25 June 2014

Theatre review: Skylight

Two people whose lives are going in opposite directions met and, for a few years, were very important to each other. In David Hare's Skylight they meet again a few years later for a night dealing with unfinished business. From humble beginnings Tom (Bill Nighy) opened a restaurant that became a chain and a thriving business, and he uses his wealth ostentatiously: He's chauffeur-driven everywhere, has a luxurious new house and enjoys giving extravagant gifts to friends and family. Kyra (Carey Mulligan) is a young woman who works long hours teaching in a rough East London school, and lives in a grubby council flat a long bus commute from work. A few years back she worked in Tom's business, as well as having a long-standing affair with the older man. Although her relationship to his family, it turns out, was a bit more complex than that.

So there's a lot of history when Tom's son Edward (Matthew Beard) turns up on her doorstep to let her know his mother is dead, and his father's temperamental behaviour since her death has focused on his ex-lover. Later that night Tom himself appears, believing that with his wife out of the picture things can now work with the woman he still loves.

Nighy played Tom in the play's premiere production 17 years ago, and returns for Stephen Daldry's West End revival. There's not many actors who could get away with still feeling right for the character nearly two decades later, but Nighy has a timeless quality, and this long-awaited return to the stage doesn't disappoint. He's quite a fascinating actor to watch, the flamboyant character of Tom giving him reason to provide the kind of scene-stealing performance a West End audience might expect from a "name:" Swooping around the small flat, his coat-tails swishing over the furniture like a cat marking its territory. But I was also interested to see his particular brand of naturalistic delivery, cutting off words and jumping to the next sentence as if his speech can't keep up with the speed of his thoughts.1

Mulligan, who as Kyra is on stage throughout, doesn't try to compete with Nighy's performance but matches up to it enough to make her mark (all while cooking a distractingly interesting-looking and -smelling pasta sauce.) Not that much happens in Hare's play but he balances both the personal and political arguments the pair make to the point that it remains fascinating; neither quite has the measure of the other as much as they think they do but there's undoubtedly a truth to Tom's belief that Kyra's hard life contains an element of self-flagellation. I'm undecided, though, on whether the play's epilogue, in which Edward briefly returns, is trying to say her arguments about why she loves her job are genuine, or if it shows her trying to convince herself of them more than anyone.

Bob Crowley's set of Kyra's flat with the walls taken away gives a real sense of place, and from the Grand Circle the backdrop of the housing estate at night is impressively convincing. Daldry's intense production keeps the play in its late-'90s setting, although it's only little things like the design of the Fairy Liquid bottle and a reference to Cindy Crawford that give it away, Hare's script otherwise making both the personal and the political themes timeless.

Skylight by David Hare is booking until the 23rd of August at Wyndhams Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

1Ian says he once met Nighy and found him self-effacing to the point of not knowing what all the fuss was about, and I think that explains why he can still give that kind of performance. Once an actor starts to believe in their own hype they tend to think the audience deserves to bask in their genius for as long as possible, and deliver these ponderous performances. Don't they, Ralph?

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