Lucinda Coxton, Alys, Always (directed by Nicholas Hytner, Br/dge Theatre)
The Bridge has fallen into a pattern of producing three kinds of play: a premiere from a successful playwright, a Shakespeare blockbuster and an adaptation of a novel by a woman. This is the latter, from a novel by former Guardian writer Harriet Lane, a novel I confess I haven’t read.
Here the central character is books page subeditor Frances (with an E, Joanna Froggatt), who is the last to see Alys (with a Y) alive, and who then is asked to meet Alys’s family, to give them closure. The widower, Laurence Kyte (with a U and a Y, Robert Glenister), is a bestselling author and Frances realises that if she can get an interview with him, it will advance her career at the newspaper. She begins to smuggle herself into the family.
Their last adaptation My Name is Lucy Barton was a monologue by a woman (and next up is Maggie Smith in A German Life) and this is a heavily narrated play — Froggatt is never offstage for more than a few seconds. She holds the stage admirably, with Bob Crowley and Luke Halls projecting images on a rear screen. Office desks, sitting rooms and kitchens emerge on platforms sliding forward on the thrust stage or rise from a pit, and this gets a little tedious at times. Glenister, the nominal star, is a little underused in the first half, and there was something odd about his sound quality (were they miked?). He effortlessly plays that sort of middle-aged white male novelist with a secret and whilst the play mocks the sort of novel he writes, his secret is hardly unsurprising.
Two significant intertexts are mentioned by the play — Rebecca and The Talented Mr Ripley. The former gives us the second love with an age gap and a protective house keeper, although here that figure is offstage and Kyte’s agent performs a double role. Ripley is the consummate con artist, seemingly unstoppable, and we slowly realise that Frances is less innocent than meets the eye — she does, of course, lie to the Kytes from the start. Both put us in psychological thriller territory, minus the action. Like Ripley, her success is a little too easy, too unchallenged and she is forgiving of Kyte’s modus operandi. When she realises she is being used, she just uses more.
So the play is always gripping, has some nice one liners (and a little self indulgent dig at the controller of Radio 4 and another at Melvyn Bragg), but I was left wondering why they felt the need to tell this story. A female writer adapting a female novelist with a solid role for a woman is to be applauded, and I’m wary of discussing this as too domestic… but something felt a little underwhelming.