The Night Watch is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week (Tues 13th to Sat 19th October) bringing to the stage an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 2006 novel of the same name. Set against a background of war and post-war London of the 1940s, this stage adaptation by playwright Hattie Naylor and director Alastair Whatley gives us a very personal view of the times from the viewpoint of three women in particular whose personal relationships are over-lapping with one another throughout this period, plus secondary characters who unknowingly are crossing, if not by direct association, but indirect second-stage removed association into their lives.
Although much of this story is about the “behind closed doors” relationships of Kay (Phoebe Pryce), Helen (Florence Roberts) and Julia (Izabella Urbanowicz), their direct and indirect connection in this story to Viv (Louise Coulthard) who in turn is connected directly to the supporting cast and storyline here, who add a much needed second layer of interest and stop this simply being a clandestine love story.
For a stage production, this finely woven story has some obvious problems. The first one is that there is a lot of detail and a lot of story to fit in here into a very limited time. This means that by default almost, there is at times that feeling of too much at once as by necessity multiple story lines of different characters play out on the stage at once, often crossing over each other’s “stage space” as their stories unfold. The second, but perhaps most important, issue is the difficulty always of telling on stage a story that is being told in reverse time as we start in 1947 and end in 1941.
For myself, I like this looking back story format, but it does mean that Act 1 is giving us many pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, setting us up as an audience for the missing pieces of our picture to be filled in in Act 2, and for the most part this works, but you have to trust your audience to be remembering a lot of detail with this story line approach, and it does get a little confusing at times when two of the principal women in this story are visually similar in many aspects. Of course, this use of a retrospective story line does allow the audience to know what is happening in the end as we move backward in time, and that may or may not be a good thing. Having gone from end to beginning in this story, I can easily see how starting our narrative in linear time fashion might have been a more satisfying way to tell the story for some people in the audience tonight, but there are moments when this story is clearly only going to work in a retrospective view as contemporary reality clashes with happier times during the war.
There are two main story lines weaving their way into one another here, but the personal and sexual relationships as between Kay, Helen and Julia are what give this story much of its emotional depth. It is odd though that, although not directly involved in the triangle of these relationships, Mickey (Mara Allen) is given so little substance as a character here and so little to do in the story.
The relationships between our trio are delicate here and have the depth of real relationships, feelings and emotions that are common to everyone in one, but it is Florence Roberts as Helen who stands out for me from this story, and perhaps part of that is the fact that Helen is a far softer and more submissive person, very different from Kay and Julia, even in the way that she dresses. At times too, there is a rigidity about Phoebe Pryce as Kay and the way some lines are delivered, but in some ways, this does fit in well with the fact that out of everyone, Kay is having the most difficulty adapting to her post war life, and some days is not coping with things very well at all. For Kay, despite its many horrors and hardships, she had a good war, a time when the usual constraints that society placed upon her were removed and she was free to live her life to the full – a life in vivid colour that is now dull black and white.
Similar characters in any production are always a potential problem, and Izabella Urbanowicz as Julia is always fighting here to clearly define her role from that of Kay, and overall does manage this, but has far less room to work in here than the roles of Helen and Kay give.
Second story lines all too often have the ability to overtake the main one, and that is often happening here with Viv, and Louise Coulthard gives a good performance here of a woman who could easily have been the whole story here in her own right.
There are many other stories waiting to be told in The Night Watch, and Mr Mundy (Malcolm James), Robert Fraser (Sam Jenkins-Shaw) and Duncan (Lewis Mackinnon) each have so much to tell, but we simply run out of time to hear them in anywhere near the depth that they require to be told in.
The Night Watch does have a lot going for it and it does capture a little of that atmosphere that many of us imagine the wartime 1940s to be like and a large part of that success goes to set and costume designer David Woodhead. The use of sound as an audio prop is also important here and Max Pappenheim has done a good job here. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this production for me though is the music by Sophie Cotton that gives with its subtle soundtrack an at times cinematic feel to this production.
Review by Tom King