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.