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The Night Watch

by on 6 November 2019

Our friends in the Blitz

The Night Watch

adapted by Hattie Naylor from the book by Sarah Waters

The Original Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal, Richmond Theatre until 9 November

Review by Matthew Grierson

If we are to believe the wartime propaganda, carrots can help us see in the dark. Although there are no carrots in The Night Watch, darkness both literal and figurative sheds light on the small group of characters thrown together by love and other circumstances.

Alastair Whatley’s direction is an effective combination of atmosphere and detail. So well realised by designer Max Pappenheim is the terraced property that dominates the stage that it was not until the lighting changed that I realised it was transparent, serving first as its own interior and later as the bombed-out shell of itself. It is enough that we believe the house is there on the stage in front of us; or that the desk of the dating agency run by Viv and Helen becomes the roof of their building; or that a square of light is the cell in Wormwood Scrubs shared by Duncan and Robert.

Lewis Mackinnon in The Night Watch by The Original Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal

Belief is not important only to us as the audience but is a central theme from the point Mr Mundy visits Christian Scientist Mrs Leonard for spiritual healing. Her insistence that the pain of his arthritis is imagined is well played by Izabella Urbanowicz, as is the willingness of the ironically named Mundy (Malcolm James) to believe in the otherwordly – and the clear distress of his companion Duncan (Lewis Mackinnon) to see him being exploited. But so much is sustained by belief in a time when one cannot depend on reality.

Even time is out of joint in The Night Watch: earlier I said ‘later’, but also meant ‘earlier’, for the conceit Hattie Naylor’s adaptation borrows from Sarah Waters’ wonderful novel is that its three acts progress backwards, from the London of 1947 to 1944 and then to 1941. This means we come weighted with the significance of details – the ring Kay gives to Viv, or the black market pink pyjamas she acquires for Helen – and only later become aware of how they have acquired that significance.

There is a deliberately, and effectively, mannered quality to the first act, portraying the way the characters are struggling to resume the straitened lives they imagine the war has merely interrupted. This is seen in the drawn fragility of Kay (Phoebe Pryce) as she sustains a haunted version of the masculine independence she enjoyed during the war. Similarly, when Robert (Sam Jenkins-Shaw) unexpectedly comes across Duncan working in a factory, their strained exchange speaks volumes about the awkward circumstances of their original encounter in prison earlier/later.

The Night Watch by The Original Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal

As the first act ends, it sets us up thematically if not causally for the second when it makes Viv (Louise Coulthard) the unexpected agent of happiness for both Robert and Kay, setting them on a hesitant but hopeful path into the future. With the beginning of the second, we are back in 1944 with feelings running stronger and clearer: Robert is fantasising about his perfect woman, and Kay is in love with hers but soon to suffer the double devastation of thinking Helen (Florence Roberts) dead in an air-raid before finding her safe in the arms of Julia (also Urbanowicz).

The further back we go into this war the more we realise the extent it has exploded supposed convention, like the piles of debris that frame the forestage. Helen and Julia relish the freedom they have to flirt in the dangerous streets of the Blitz, while Kay wins promotion for her diligence as an ambulance driver as Mr Cole (Jenkins-Shaw again) tells her she’s more of a man than many of her colleagues will ever be.

Izabella Urbanowicz and Phoebe Pryce in The Night Watch by The Original Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal

Ironically, the moment Cole realises that Kay is gay is also the moment that Kay and Julia’s own relationship starts to collapse. This means the three years in which The Night Watch’s bombshells land are the angles of the love triangle between Julia, Kay and Helen. Roberts’ performance as Helen is especially well nuanced, delighting in her chivalrous rescue by Kay from a bombed house in 1941, while in 1944 we have already seen her accusing her girlfriend of wanting to save everyone. This is again a different Helen to the woman who in 1947 shares a guarded chumminess with colleague Viv, or, anguished, suspects Julia of having an affair.

Similarly forceful to these lovers’ confrontations are the scenes in which Viv’s abortion and Duncan’s suicide attempt are discovered, with Coulthard and Mackinnon respectively evincing the distress into which their mistaken beliefs have carried them. Again, this intensity of emotion is all the more effective for being in tension with our experience of the characters so far.

The skilful depiction of the main characters’ facets is complemented by the play’s discreet use of doubling in the supporting actors, proving that this is a cast adept in versatility. As fussy, blustering dating agency client Mr Wilson Malcolm James is unrecognisably the peculiar prison warden Mr Mundy, and with his bluff, Welsh good humour, Jenkins-Shaw is believably a different man to conscientious objector Robert with his Oxbridge tones. Mara Allen is likewise excellent both as Kay’s foil, the mechanic and ambulancewoman Mickey, and she practically steals her only scene as factory manager Mrs Alexander.

In dark times it’s a dangerous proposition to take us back into the Blitz. But as the presiding spirit of Mrs Leonard tells the cinema-going Kay, we are enthralled by the lit-up fictions before us. So believe me when I write that The Night Watch is victorious.

Matthew Grierson
November 2019

Photos © Mark Douet

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