A bracing reminder of a time when David Hare wrote meaty political plays starring Bill Nighy rather than ropey TV spy dramas starring Bill Nighy, this big-ticket celebrity revival of Hare’s ‘Skylight’ stars Bill Nighy, in a role played to perfection in 1996 by one Bill Nighy.
Okay, on the face of it, Stephen Daldry’s revival of Hare’s 1995 three-hander looks a touch cosy, an easy way back to theatre for its leading man and an obvious star vehicle for West End debutante Carey Mulligan, whose teacher character Kyra never leaves the stage.
And truth be told, the first half is kind of what you’d expect, particularly with regards to Nighy, whose restaurateur Tom has tracked ex-lover Kyra down to the grotty estate where she holed up after running away from him three years ago. Self-absorbed, flamboyant and boyishly charming, Nighy’s high-octane performance verges on grandstanding, though enjoyably so – he may be two decades older than last time he played the role, but you can see why a younger lover might fall for the feisty old bastard.
Mulligan, meanwhile, is calm and expressive, most of the acting done by that remarkable, childishly wise face, as she cordially explains to Tom (and also his son Edward – an entertaining Matthew Beard – who visits in the prologue-like opening scene) why she has decided that helping out at a tough Hackney comp is the right thing to do.
It’s enjoyable, perhaps a little melodramatic, but it sets up for a titanic second half. Though some references in the play are dated – notably a passage where Edward bangs on about the Yellow Pages – the heavily politicised second half feels almost disconcertingly fresh.
When Tom’s wife discovered the affair, Kyra fled rather than explore the possibility of creating a new life with him. Now Tom’s wife is dead, and the two of them can have their differences out. He is a charming, chauvinistic capitalist, baffled at the material sacrifices she has made to do a job helping others; she is a humble, to his mind hairshirt-bound manifestation of the left’s less radical, more compassionate ’90s rebirth. Their arguments are the same arguments happening in our papers and public arenas now, arguments over welfare, over the righteousness of the one per cent, over whether we owe anything to the poor in our society. It’s invigorating stuff, galvanised by the powerful chemistry between them, him the crackling spark, her the poised conductor.
There are moments of rhetorical thinness and Daldry’s production doesn’t feel desperately light on its feet. But ultimately it works – because of the performances, because of the political relevance, because of the passion in the writing, and because ultimately it’s hard not warm to the underlying suggestion that perhaps one day love will save us from our stupid squabblings.