The Night Watch

Oct 16 2019 | By More

★★★☆☆      Uneasy retelling

King’s Theatre: Tue 15 – Sat 19 Oct 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

The touring adaptation at the King’s of The Night Watch, the best-selling novel by Sarah Waters, has a great deal of emotional clarity, but little in the way of dramatic power.

Hattie Naylor’s adaptation, presented by The Original Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal, certainly crams in as much of the book as it can. Indeed, there is little room for this version to breathe, let alone succeed on its own terms.

Phoebe Pryce and Company. Pic: Mark Douet

The story is told backwards – starting in 1947 and proceeding, after the interval, to 1944 and 1941. While this device works better in print than on stage, it is not a major problem.

However, it does add to the difficulties of this adaptation. Where a book can drip-feed slowly, a play often has to show us everything at once. The audience has to work hard to establish the narrative in the first half, with the second act then largely telling us what we already know.

The determination to include as much of the source as possible also makes it more of a succession of ‘dramatic moments’ that lay bare the coincidences and narrative jolts that all fiction depends upon, but are rarely as starkly in evidence as they are here.

finely drawn

Luckily, the original story is compelling enough, and the characterisations lucid enough, to survive the transition largely intact. The depictions of the effects of war on the home front, and the struggles many went through just trying to be true to themselves, are portrayed with a good deal of emotion.

Mara Allen and Phoebe Pryce. Pic: Mark Douet

Phoebe Pryce’s Kay, pining for the recognition war provided as an ambulance driver as well as for her lost love Helen, is a finely drawn characterisation. Florence Roberts gives Helen a cut-glass period sheen. Izabella Urbanowicz as Julia, partner of both women at different times, has both a hauteur and a vulnerability that are equally believable.

Unfortunately, not all of the performances are quite so impressive. This is one of those adaptations where the cast is simultaneously too big and too small – too big for the characters to be given time to develop, yet too small for the various figures represented – not all of them dramatically necessary – to be given individual life. Instead, some of the doubling up is represented more by funny-voiced comic turns that jar.

Individual performances – Mara Allen as Kay’s colleague Mickey, Louise Coulthard as Viv, Lewis Mackinnon as her troubled brother Duncan – have a great deal to recommend them, but never gel together.

expressive beauty

Rarely can the problems faced by a stage play in comparison to a 500-page novel, regarding the depiction of the inner lives of a whole host of characters, have been brought into such sharp focus. This is crystallised by Viv’s involvement with a married man who is often mentioned but never appears, while other characters apparently less critical in the narrative have plenty of time onstage.

Lewis Mackinnon and Louise Coulthard. Pic: Mark Douet

Alastair Whatley’s direction similarly falls between two stools – there are moments of expressive beauty, but far too much is static. David Woodhead’s design is certainly not the only World War Two bombsite seen on the King’s stage recently, but acquits itself well.

Many of the problems of adapting well-known novels surface here; a desire to be true to the book and not offend its fans is all too evident. Indeed, familiarity with the book is a decided advantage in finding your way into a production that has impressive elements, but lacks overall coherence.

Running time 2 hours 20 minutes (including one interval).
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven St, EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 15 – Saturday 19 October 2019
Daily at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.30 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.

The Night Watch on tour 2019:
15 – 19 Oct Edinburgh
King’s Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
21 – 26 Oct Warwick
Warwick Arts Centre
024 7652 4524 Book online
5 – 9 Nov Richmond
0844 871 7651 Book online
11 – 16 Nov Salisbury
01722 320 333 Book online
18 – 23 Nov Croydon
Ashcroft Playhouse
020 3292 0002 Book online

Phoebe Pryce and Mara Allen. Pic: Mark Douet


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