Kelly Hotten

The Night Watch

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24/05/16

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Based on Sarah Waters Booker-nominated novel, Hattie Naylor’s intriguing adaptation of The Night Watch relates a series of interwoven stories, pitched against the setting of the Second World War and its aftermath. The play’s ingenious set comprises two large turning circles, the outer rim moving anti clockwise, the inner in the opposite direction. The two circles are constantly in motion and they effectively mirror the unfolding story, which, as in the novel, is told in reverse chronological order – the play’s first half is set in 1947; in the second, events skip back to 1944, to London’s ‘little blitz’, before finally arriving in the carnage of 1941. It’s a brilliant piece of staging and of course, this being the Royal Exchange, it has one final trick up its sleeve – happily, not the water feature that has been rather overused in recent productions, but a simple and effective device that it would be a crime to reveal.

The central protagonist, Kay  (Jodie McNee) is gay at a time when lesbianism is still considered an aberration. During the war years she works as an ambulance woman and afterwards finds it hard to recover her sense of purpose. Her former partner, Helen (Kelly Hotten) is now living with Julia (Lucy Briggs-Owen) herself once a girlfriend of Kay’s. Meanwhile, Duncan (Joe Jameson), who was jailed as a conscientious objector during the war, reconnects with Robert (Ben Addis), now a journalist, who is shocked to discover that his old friend is lodging with their former gaoler, retired prison officer, Mr Mundy (Christopher Ettridge). This first half throws out a lot of questions about the various characters and how their stories relate to each other, and many of those questions remain unanswered until the second half, when the pace accelerates, until we finally hurtle  into the single momentous event that kicked everything into motion.

The performances here are exemplary and there’s something quite mesmerising in the way the actors seem to float constantly around the stage on the rotating circles, allowing us to see them from every possible angle as they reveal more and more about what makes them tick. The evocations of different settings with the use of a few simple props are masterfully done, while sound designer, Dan Jones has done a great job of bringing the soundscape of the Blitz to vivid life.

This is an assured and satisfying production that succeeds on many levels. Enjoy.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Inkheart

11/12/15

Home, Manchester

‘Tis the season of theatrical family fayre, when children’s stories are plundered for festive productions, with often mixed results.

Inkheart started life as a novel by Cornelia Funke, evolved into a successful film, and now struts its stuff as a lively Christmas play. It tells the tale of twelve-year-old Meggie (Katherine Carlton) and her father, Mo (Paul McEwan), whose ‘Silvertongue’ status means that, when they read aloud, characters step from the pages of their books, and blunder into the real world. Meggie and Mo embark upon a desperate quest to save the last copy of the eponymous book, protecting it from the villains who wish to destroy it.

The set comprises a mountain of books, with shelves and steps cunningly concealed. It rotates and tips, and is used effectively to represent a home, a library, a beach and a car; it’s really quite a lovely thing. And the production starts well: the narration (provided by Kelly Hotten) is clear and engaging, and the disruption of Meggie’s world by the appearance of the mysterious Dustfinger (Andrew Sheridan) is nicely unsettling. Carlton is uncannily convincing as a twelve-year-old, and Rachel Atkins, as Elinor, is a comic delight.

Overall, it doesn’t quite work for me though. It’s not as light as it needs to be; it’s pedestrian when it needs to fly. The fire-juggling, for example, just  isn’t spectacular enough, and the panto-villain antics of Basta and Flatnose (Darryl Clark and Griffin Stevens), while competently done, seem at odds with the general tone. The magic isn’t… magical enough, the comedy too clumsy and the scary stuff just doesn’t scare.

Of course, as two adults, we are not the target audience. There were a lot of kids watching with us tonight, and they seemed to find it an utter joy. One for the children, then, but without much to commend it to the grown-ups accompanying them…

3 stars

Susan Singfield