Slick adaptation of Harriet Lane’s thriller about a woman who infiltrates a privileged family
Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre sometimes feels overwhelmed by a sense of unrealised potential: it can command the best playwrights, actors and directors in the world, but has yet to really knock it out of the park with a piece of new writing.
Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation of Harriet Lane’s acclaimed debut novel ‘Alys, Always’ isn’t a classic, but it goes down pretty smooth, a smart, slick psychodrama with a mischievous satirical undercurrent.
As Hytner’s production begins the unremarkable Frances (Joanne Froggatt) witnesses a car overturn on a country road. Shocked, she tries to comfort the dying passenger: a woman named Alys.
Returning to her job as arts desk dogsbody for an Observer-like Sunday newspaper, Frances tries to move past the accident, and initially rebuffs a request from Alys’s family to meet and talk. But when she realises Alys’s widowed husband is heavyweight author Laurence Kyte (Robert Glenister), an ambition to enter his world is kindled: at first just a spark; later a bonfire.
There’s a fascinating tension here between Frances’s increasingly disturbing behaviour, and a sense that it’s at least somewhat mitigated by the ghastliness of the people she’s forcing herself upon. The Kytes aren’t evil, but they are shallow, rich and silly, allowing themselves to be led by their impulses and emotions. The introspective, analytical Frances finds it shocking easy to manipulate them.
Joanne Froggatt of ‘Downton Abbey’ fame is good as Frances, a put-upon young woman, somewhat bereft of charisma or warmth who gradually reshapes herself to fill the void in the Kyte family’s lives. It’s never particularly obvious what she actually wants; but probably she doesn’t know herself, her entire journey a sort of listless poking at her own spiritual void. Froggatt plays her as an everywoman increasingly chased by flashes of exasperation, anger and froideur as she pushes further on into this privileged world and fails to find very much to satisfy her. By most conventional standards I suppose you’d call her a sociopath, but again, there is a lightness of touch here, and a sense that the Kytes are not intrinsically any more deserving of their privilege than Frances is.
The book is a darker and more unsettling affair, with Frances a genuinely unreliable narrator. That doesn’t happen here, and maybe the sense of her conspiracy with the audience slightly blunts the darker intent of the story. Still, Hytner’s brisk production, with a live cello score and dynamic set and projections from Bob Crowley and Luke Halls, is effortlessly watchable, and often very funny in its digs at class, privilege and arts hacks. Plus it’s a real landmark for Hytner: some 40 years into his career, he’s finally directed a play written by a woman – better late than never.
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