tue 21/10/2014

Skylight, Wyndham's Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Skylight, Wyndham's Theatre

David Hare's domestic epic dazzles anew

What's for dinner? Bill Nighy returns to `Skylight', this time with Carey MulliganJohn Haynes

A totemic play from (nearly) 20 years ago surfaces afresh in Stephen Daldry's West End revival of Skylight, the power of David Hare's intimate epic fully intact if somewhat redistributed as is to be expected from the passage of time and a new cast. Make that a mostly new cast, given that the current leading man, Bill Nighy, followed on from Michael Gambon in the original Richard Eyre staging of a play that has plenty to say about how we live and love now as it did during the Thatcherite era in which the writing is steeped.

If the evening as a whole feels less erotically charged than the first time around, its emotions land in different ways, and there's no doubt that the instantaneous standing ovation on press night represented a genuine response to the sort of event theatre that audiences increasingly crave. Add to that the novelty value of two stars - Nighy and Carey Mulligan - who have been strangers to the capital's boards of late (Mulligan has done two plays in New York since appearing in The Seagull at the Royal Court in 2007) and an already sought-after ticket is likely to intensify in demand across the limited run. (The play will be broadcast July 17 to more than 500 screens across the country as part of National Theatre Live.) 

Carey Mulligan in SkylightAs before, Hare's writing deftly weaves the personal and the political to tell of Kyra Hollis (Mulligan), an idealistic teacher at a tough East Ham school, who is visited one wintry evening in her Kensal Rise flat by Tom Sergeant (Nighy), the older - in this version, quite a lot older: the performers are 35 years apart in age - and hugely successful restaurateur with whom Kyra had a six-year affair. (The evening, incidentally, can't be all that wintry, given that the pair spend much of the time barefoot in a flat we are specifically told is poorly heated.) Since calling quits on their relationship, Kyra has given herself over to work and to a career made worthwhile by the prospect of just one special student, a reality movingly voiced by Mulligan (pictured above) with which any educator will identify at once. (Students of cookery, by the way, will find a recipe for Kyra's pasta sauce in the programme: a merchandising opportunity as the run goes on?) 

And so it is that she is surprised this snowy night to find her buzzer insistently rung first by Tom's younger child, 18-year-old Edward (Matthew Beard, whose lanky flamboyance makes him immediately credible as Nighy's son), and soon after by Tom himself in the panther-like, utterly mesmeric form of Nighy, who has come seeking perhaps to rekindle a relationship that can now move forward given that his wife, Alice, has died of cancer. What ensues across two acts is an emotional tug-of-war that might seem to end in defeat, were it not for the reappearance of Edward for the play's ever-sweet coda, itself accompanied by the visible dawning of a new day: a skylight of its own looking toward a brighter future given the jagged emotions and pain that have come before. 

Those who saw Eyre's original staging - a defining production of his National Theatre stewardship - won't have their memories of Gambon and Lia Williams easily erased, Williams's battered yet blinding radiance marking out one of my desert island performances: instructively, it is she and not Gambon who is pictured on the cover of the original playtext, an indication of the primacy of Kyra as borne out anew by the fact that Mulligan here gets the last bow. 

There are moments on this occasion where Mulligan feels perhaps that little bit too indrawn, though she comes out of herself first when goaded on by the spinning, loping top that is Nighy's Tom and then, more gently, in the presence of Edward's unforced beneficence as he arrives bearing breakfast. (Beard and Mulligan are pictured below.) It's to Hare's credit, too, that your allegiances towards the central pair keep shifting. Tom may be the self-made magnate as sardonic quipster who lets fly with the wit but it's Kyra whose deeply personal state-of-the-nation address prompts spontaneous applause. 

Matthew Beard and Carey Mulligan in SkylightThe affect, for its part, plays differently 19 years on, as well. At the National, there was no mistaking the bearish, animalistic allure of Gambon, shirt untucked, and the force field his Tom represented, however hard Williams's emotionally translucent Kyra tried to forestall his enthusiasms. Here, one feels Tom's near-paternalistic affections for a girl-woman in Kyra whom he first espied on the street when she was 18, and Daldry's work is at its most rending when he allows the two leads suddenly to fall silent, Tom cradling the onetime source of balm in Kyra whom he has loved and lost.

The design does its bit to locate this deal-maker of an encounter in the world at large, as opposed to Eyre's set designer John Gunter, who folded the universe into a single living space. Bob Crowley's set is dominated throughout by the council estate that Kyra has chosen for herself in marked contrast to the cushy Chelsea life she led with Tom. In a similar vein, Paul Arditti's sound design alerts us to daily life as it continues outside and to which Kyra, fortified by her final-scene scrambled eggs and croissants, will soon return, emotionally depleted yet recharged - much like this play's audience.  

Daldry's work is at its most rending when he allows his two leads suddenly to fall silent

rating

4

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