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.
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4.7 / 5
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What a fantastic play! Great story, great script and great acting. Very funny with endearing characters.
First, the low-down on the reasonably simple plot (although after ‘Mr Burns’ and basically any Shakespeare play, anything seems simple): Kyra (Mulligan), around thirty, is a teacher working and living in two different, but equally down-and-out areas of London. One freezing winter’s evening she is visited first by 18 year old Edward Sargeant, (played expertly by Matthew Beard)). Kyra lived earlier with the Sargeant family for several years, but left abruptly after Edward’s mother, Alice (ahahahaha she has my name!), discovered Tom (Edward’s father) and Kyra’s six year affair. Alice has since died of cancer, and Edward has come looking for answers; why did Kyra – who he viewed as a sister – just walk out on the family and never make contact again?
Later that evening, after Edward has left, and Kyra is settling in for a normal night of a hot bath, making dinner and marking homework, Tom himself turns up, out of the blue. As the evening progresses, the two attempt to rekindle their once passionate relationship only to find themselves locked in a dangerous battle of opposing ideologies and mutual desires.
It sounds heavy, but there’s a surprising amount of laughs actually. The tension between the two never becomes unbearable, yet it is still a powerful play; one that really makes you think. The element I found most surprising was how much I agreed with Kyra. I had assumed before that she’d be incredibly and insufferably self-righteous. Now, I’m not saying the fact that she seemed to think she was morally superior to many others wasn’t irritating at time, but she did put forward some pretty major points about society and class differences and how to help the needy and modern self-pity. Ok, put like that it doessound rather sanctimonious, but trust me, something about the way Mulligan played it, and the way the script was written meant that I liked Kyra a whole lot more than I anticipated.
The casting was basically perfect to be honest. In fact, my only criticism of the whole play was that I wanted more stage time for Edward; perhaps because Beard played him with such energy, and yet with such realism. Or perhaps because he was on a gap year and close to my age, so I related more to him.
Anyway, who cares what the reason was, all I know is he was so good I wanted more!
I’ve already said how much I liked Mulligan’s understated performance, in particular her sudden powerful outbursts after many minutes of cool, controlled, collected calm. However, she was matched by Nighy in terms of performance. He leapt about the stage, gesturing here and gesturing there with this slightly odd two-fingered point, bellowing rage one moment, on the verge of tears the next. Really, I couldn’t fault it. I couldn’t fault any of the performances actually, I honestly can’t picture anyone else performing them in the same way.
The staging was really cleverly done; the whole story takes place in Kyra’s supposedly freezing, tiny, crappy apartment. Sometimes a play with no real scene changes can get, dare I say it, a little boring, and even overly claustrophobic for an audience. However, with moving walls, working taps and stove and the outside of the flat visible, Bob Crawleyturned this limitation into an advantage. One really felt a part of Kyra’s life, and, whilst getting the smallness of the flat down to a tee, having the outside world visible for a lot of the play meant that it didn’t just seem like the characters were in their own little world where nothing had any effect on anyone else.
This play is famous for having the lead actress cook spaghetti bolognaise on stage as she is talking to Tom – just let me say this: eat before you go! The smell of the cooking onions and carrots and leeks and chili is absolutely gorgeous, and, again, shows how the play is rooted in reality. I know some critics and writers think that having ‘real’ things on stage – from real food to water to fire to animals to children to kissing – in some way emphasises the falsity of the other elements, and I see their point (let’s be honest, kissing in the theatre is rarely the highlight of the evening. Either it’s too long or too awkward or someone wolf-whistles… you get my drift) but in this production it really works.
As I hope you’ve picked up, this is a seriously good piece of theatre. Light-hearted enough to be an enjoyable evening out, but interesting enough to leave you contemplative afterwards. The only teeny tiny problem I heard of was from the women behind me; we were sitting right high up in the balcony and it seemed many slightly older people were finding it quite hard to hear everything. I think this is basically a stylistic choice; the actors want their performances as naturalistic and realistic as possible, but, that being said, if you are just booking now and would prefer not to listen pretty closely then book the lower seats! Or go to the NT Live showing of course.
Basically an amazing production of a great play. Go and see it while you can!
So Skylight is this summer’s big film-star vehicle for Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, making her West End debut, as former lovers reunited for one evening in a grotty flat in north London while Kyra cooks spaghetti. At a glance you may think them an unlikely casting choice, even inappropriate given the 35 years between them, but give this a chance and you’ll find yourself fully believing in their relationship.
Kyra used to work for Tom in a restaurant he owned with his wife. She lived with them for six years whilst conducting an affair with him for which neither feels any remorse, and when his wife found out Kyra left without explanation. Since then the wife has died and Tom has finally tracked Kyra down to find out why she bolted and whether there’s a chance at reconciliation. But both of them have changed, and during the course of one evening at her flat they confront their shared past and whether they can breach the vast gulf now between them.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this duel between the characters is that this gulf exists almost entirely as a physical distance between the actors. This is an interesting decision by director Stephen Daldry showing two people who never get close to one another despite the intimacy of their conversation and their earlier relationship. They don’t just sit on opposite sides of the table but, for much of the play, on opposite sides of the room. Far from making it less plausible, it reinforces how different they now are and how much they would have to overcome to be reunited. This also adds far greater significance and poignancy to the few moments when they are physically close.
Bill Nighy is incredible as the suave and boisterous Tom, a role he has played in an earlier iteration. His performance is large and full of energy as he prowls the stage trying to figure out Kyra’s situation. He’s a man who’s done very well for himself in the restaurant business and become used to a style of living, which rankles with Kyra’s new found social conscience. Nighy’s layered performance is particularly adept at the rapid chances of mood and pace, flipping in a second from contempt for Kyra’s attitudes to painful remembrance of their shared history, and it is in these moments that you see his skill in conveying a man deeply affected by his life choices.
Carey Mulligan’s Kyra is a perfect contrast to the more exuberant Nighy, playing it small and contained, emphasising her control and determination, avoiding confrontation. It is easy to understand why she chose to run away from Tom and not deal with the consequences of their affair. But this adds the more power to the moment she really does lose control, first with anger at Tom’s patronising attitude, and then in a tender emotional surrender that closes the first act. By living in a level of discomfort Kyra is punishing herself for her earlier indiscretion and the guilt she feels towards Tom’s wife, but in Mulligan’s complex performance you see her not quite realising this and filling her time with social crusades instead.
The interplay between the two of them is really first rate, battling for control and the last word. Their stories are unfolded to the audience before being torn down; Kyra accusing him of romanticising the past while Tom retorts with attacks on her conscience. These are two people, once so close and with so much to say, now unable to reconcile the changed other before them. At times it’s hard to escape Hare’s polemic, and the views the characters express can seem more of a playwright’s rant than a natural conversation, but this doesn’t tarnish a fantastic revival. Nighy and Mulligan’s gripping performances are well worth the visit, but book an Italian restaurant afterwards- you’ll want to eat spaghetti!
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