In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises), Gate Theatre

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As a child – like so many children – I was afraid of the dark. In those long nights when I was stubbornly holding my eyes open against the threatening gloom, my mum would read to me from Martin Waddell’s Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? In the book, Little Bear doesn’t like the dark. To Big Bear’s exasperation, he won’t go to sleep at night. What is he afraid of? Big Bear asks, again and again.

“The dark all around us,” he replies.

In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises) unfolds a little like a storybook. Even its title has a fairytale ring to it. Once upon a time, Man and Woman (nameless urban archetypes) meet. On the street, maybe, or in a bar. They go on dates. He tells bad jokes. They fall in love.

And then they have a baby. A child is born – though, Nina Segal’s play insists, this isn’t a religious story. This child is just another child. And like so many children, it cries. The newborn bawls ceaselessly through the night, driving its parents to distraction. We join them in one narrow, dark sliver of one of these sleepless nights, as fatigued desperation gives way to hallucinatory fears. Slowly, inexorably, all the terrible things happening elsewhere in the world seep through the four thin, brittle walls of the child’s bedroom.

The two sleep-deprived protagonists are at once specific and generic. They’re both invested with just enough personality that we feel we know them a bit (she believes marriage is a misogynistic institution, he smokes though he knows he shouldn’t), yet they remain blank enough for us as audience members to project something of ourselves onto them. A bit like characters in storybooks.

Segal’s dialogue oscillates between third and first person, while performers Alex Waldmann and Adelle Leonce always seem to be both in and out of character at the same time, flickering constantly between narrating and representing. It feels vital that they don’t ever become too particular, too easy to dismiss. This is not just about them, in the same way that fairytales are never just about Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. This is for all of us who have brought or will bring or might bring another human being into this world. This incredible, broken, fucked-up world.

As a teenager, I devoured dystopian fiction. I wasn’t alone. Dystopias seem to strike a chord with those trapped, awkwardly, between childhood and adulthood – perhaps, as Laura Miller suggests in the New Yorker, because “the typical arc of the dystopian narrative mirrors the course of adolescent disaffection”. In all those scorched worlds, seemingly far removed from the one I was growing up in, I found something to identify with.

Those imagined apocalypses, though, have never quite receded as I’ve got older. They remain, somewhere in my own personal store of fears, multiplied by the threats of climate change, terrorism, mutating viruses. The dark all around us.

Again, I’m not alone. In a recent essay on Aeon, Frank Bures argues that the apocalypse has never been easier to imagine in the hyper-connected world that we currently live in, but that it’s also an age-old anxiety. “The apocalypse wasn’t coming,” he realises. “It was always with us.”

In Blasted, a war zone explodes into a Leeds hotel room, violence tearing through Western comfort and complacency. Though In the Night Time owes a considerable debt to Sarah Kane’s play, here the domestic chaos of the child’s bedroom is never completely ruptured by the horrors beyond its walls. Instead they intrude and then recede, and then intrude and recede again.

It’s a small space, the stage at the Gate, and director Ben Kidd exploits that. It easily becomes one of the too-small rented flats that families squeeze into across this city, filled with accumulating stuff. At the start of the show, the two characters and all the detritus of their lives are wrapped up in clingfilm. Tearing through this plastic membrane, birthed into the performance space, Waldmann and Leonce begin to construct the fragile lives of their characters. A picture frame here, a string of fairy lights there. All the things that we invest with the meaning of a relationship.

With a child, of course, comes more stuff. Even the baby itself, a plastic doll with a flashing alarm in its head, arrives in an Amazon box. And littered with all the familiar junk of infancy – nappies and bottles and plastic, so much plastic – the stage already begins to take on a disordered, calamity-hit aesthetic, while the two parents circle one another like enemies in a war of their own. All it then takes to bring fears of conflict, crisis and disease crashing into the room is for this precariously constructed space to collapse entirely, possessions flying like shrapnel.

“The two things are not connected,” the characters repeat again and again about different events – an insistent and increasingly desperate refrain. Of course, it only reinforces the reality that they are. Somewhere, far away, people are dying. Here, in a rented flat in an overpriced city, parents are placating their screaming child with “plastic sacrifices”. The two things are connected. Comfort in one part of the world depends on suffering elsewhere.

Bures suggests that now, in the globalised twenty-first century, the nature of our apocalyptic visions has changed:

“Today our fears are broader, deeper, woven more tightly into our daily lives, which makes it feel like the seeds of our destruction are all around us. We are more afraid, but less able to point to a single source for our fear. At the root is the realisation that we are part of something beyond our control.”

This pervasive, unsettling fear is what reverberates through Escaped Alone, Caryl Churchill’s latest, compellingly strange play at the Royal Court, and it’s also what reverberates through In the Night Time. The Man and Woman feel acutely that imminent destruction is everywhere around them, but they feel powerless to fix whatever it is that has broken. Catastrophe and everyday life, meanwhile, are so closely knitted together that neither can overcome the other. The war zone never obliterates the child’s bedroom. The end of the world is both there and not there.

The apocalypse isn’t coming. It’s always with us.

As an adult, inching ever closer to 30, it starts to feel as though babies are everywhere. Facebook is suddenly full of them: a whole timeline of chubby cheeks and dimpled smiles. Female friends without kids begin, for the first time, to plan their lives within a slim reproductive window. At the same time, news headlines seem to scream the foolishness of bringing a child into a world fraught with so much violence and crisis and pain. Still, there’s only so much time, the world keeps reminding us. Tick tock. Better make your mind up.

Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs cleverly stretched out one couple’s conversation about whether or not to bring a child into the world, revealing how a private decision is also one of agonisingly public responsibility. What justification can there possibly be for placing another carbon footprint on an already overburdened planet? In the Night Time is, in some ways, the “after” version of that play. This couple have already had a child – “for all the right reasons,” they assure us – but are left wondering if in fact they’ve made a terrible mistake.

Both play and production occasionally strain this point. The repetitive rhythms of the play’s speech are apt, echoing both storybook narrative convention and the circular arguments of denial that so often greet situations of crisis, but they can also begin to grate. After the first wave of chaos, meanwhile, the staging gives itself few places to go. Waldmann and Leonce must simply pick their way through the plastic rubble of the set, an image that gradually loses its power as the piece goes on and the momentum begins to slow. With the exception of a tinny chorus of toy sounds, playfully reinforcing the ridiculousness of this plastic shrine the two characters have erected to their child, the second half of Kidd’s production never quite matches up to the first.

In its evocation of present anxieties, though, In the Night Time is pretty damn potent. I might not have a child of my own, or be thinking about bringing one into the world any time soon. But those fears, that feeling that we inhabit a broken world and that – even worse – we are all selfishly failing to fix it, get me right between the ribs. Segal and Kidd manage to create the uneasy feeling that apocalypse is always right round the corner and that we as flawed human beings are each at once responsible and helpless. In the end, the show suggests, all we can really do is confront that dark all around us, waiting and hoping for the dawn to break.

Photo: Bill Knight.

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Tipping the Velvet, Lyric Hammersmith

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Note: an incredibly late response to this production, appearing so long after the show’s run because I submitted it for the Observer Anthony Burgess Competition (which, needless to say, it wasn’t shortlisted for).

“This is not how the show ends!” So goes the protest of the music hall MC in the closing scene of Tipping the Velvet, the Lyric Hammersmith’s knowingly theatrical stage adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel. David Cardy’s mansplaining cockney narrator is finally having his control challenged by Nancy Astley, the protagonist whose sexual awakening he has nudged and winked his way through for the last three hours. She has some problems with his telling and she’s ready – finally – to answer back. So who owns this story?

Writer Rebecca Solnit, weaver of her own exquisite stories, describes a book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another”. Without the lifeblood of readers pumping through them, novels are just so many empty ventricles. Since its publication in 1998, Tipping the Velvet has pulsed beneath the ribs of millions of readers. The heart metaphor, indeed, seems especially apt for a novel that means so much to so many. A landmark in lesbian fiction, Waters’ tale of an imagined queer subculture glittering beneath the soot and grime of Victorian London has countless ardent fans.

It’s easy to see why the story of oyster girl turned music hall star Nancy has become so fiercely beloved. Tipping the Velvet is a sumptuous, enveloping read, packed with both period detail and lush imaginative embellishment. At the novel’s opening, Nancy is leading a drab, ordinary life in Whitstable, working in her parents’ oyster parlour and spending evenings with a local beau. Then, one night at the music hall in Canterbury, she sees Kitty Butler, a male impersonator or “masher”. It’s love – and lust – at first sight. In the course of a musical number, Nancy’s life is transformed.

Nancy’s infatuation is as much with the greasepaint and glamour of the music hall as it is with the gender-bending Kitty. And it’s this aspect of the novel that playwright Laura Wade and director Lyndsey Turner have seized on in adapting it for the stage. It makes sense: relocating a narrative to the theatre, why not emphasise its already theatrical elements? So Nancy’s journey of self-discovery becomes a series of music hall acts, ranging from the colourful to the ridiculous, all firmly rooted in the Lyric’s own music hall past.

There’s always been a hint of the fantastical to Tipping the Velvet. Waters herself describes the book as her “attempt to write a Victorian-style novel telling a very lesbian story in a way that was half-authentic but half-anachronistic too”. It’s semi-historical fiction: a sexy twentieth-century riff on lavish Victorian storytelling. Dickens with dildos. Nancy herself, meanwhile, is a chameleonic figure, forever shrugging on a new performance as changing circumstances demand.

It’s wise, then, to approach her tale with some fictional flourish. Gritty realism was never going to serve this narrative well, so it’s for the best that Wade and Turner, along with designer Lizzie Clachan, have embraced a more flamboyant approach, decorating the drama with gaudy painted backdrops and circus acrobatics. But Waters’ novel is no straightforward carnivalesque romp. It’s not with sex or spectacle alone that a novel steals its way into readers’ hearts. Nancy’s story is also passionate and heartbreaking, full of all the giddy vertigo and crushing despair of first love. It is as devastating as it is joyous.

The Lyric’s production, though, has only the one tone. That’s the problem with music hall: it’s designed as a vehicle for broad comedy and thigh-slapping entertainment. But emotional nuance? Not so much. It’s a form – with its insistent gags and relentless visual humour – that demands we laugh. When the object of that laughter is a tender, tentative relationship between two women, though, it’s uncomfortable at best and wildly offensive at worst.

The form also makes it tough to care about its characters. Nancy’s yearning, hot and urgent, should be palpable. In this version, though, Sally Messham – excellent in every other respect – struggles to reach across the gulf opened up by the production’s self-conscious style of choice. Her Nancy, at once bold and tremulous, contains just the right blend of naivety and defiance, but she is forever kept at one remove from the audience. Her romances, first with Laura Rogers’ self-assured and ambitious Kitty and later with socialist force of nature Florence (a no-nonsense yet soft-centred Adelle Leonce), are oddly distant.

There is, admittedly, fun to be had in this adaptation. At times rivalling the Lyric’s much-loved pantomime, the music hall turns deploy their share of ingenuity in moving the narrative forward. Nancy’s breathless journey to London, where she follows rising star Kitty as her dresser and later her fellow performer, is all conveyed through a busy chorus of voices and sound effects; the two women’s hesitant attraction is a tiptoeing dance of suppressed flirtation. For the music itself, Victorian favourites are traded for music hall arrangements of the likes of Prince’s “Kiss” and Miley Cyrus’s infamous “Wrecking Ball”, recalling the a capella numbers that Turner memorably inserted into Wade’s earlier play Posh and wittily filtering the past through the present.

But by forcing Tipping the Velvet into this tight music hall frame, Wade and Turner have smashed it into troublingly small fragments. Each miniature scene whisks past before it can have any real impact, sticking around only as long as it takes to deliver a punchline. Unlike the intense, confessional prose of Waters’ novel, this is a frustratingly interrupted narrative. More worryingly, the curtains have a habit of swishing closed right at the moment the female characters are nearing intimacy. When we do get lesbian sex, it’s studiedly metaphorical: performers twirl and sway in coy aerial acts. The implicit message is that this desire is to be hidden, kept safely behind curtains or cloaked in metaphor.

Most problematic of all is the leering, ever-present master of ceremonies, doling out enforced jollity regardless of the emotional tenor of the drama. Brandishing his gavel – regularly employed to stop and start the action – Cardy’s narrator is two parts East End geezer, one part sleazy uncle. His telling of Nancy’s Sapphic adventures is painfully patronising, enclosing everything on stage within the voracious male gaze. There is a purpose to this, establishing a dominant framework in order to eventually dismantle it. But why can’t this female narrative, told by a female creative team, reject patriarchal frameworks entirely?

Solnit has another startling metaphor for stories. They are “compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice”. By insisting on the music hall framing, Wade and Turner have robbed Nancy of her story. She’s left without direction or shelter, stumbling blindly through act after whimsical act.

The production’s nadir coincides with Nancy’s – though not in the way its creators might have intended. Betrayed by Kitty and utterly bereft, our protagonist trudges aimlessly through the streets of London, suddenly finding herself amid the meat and guts of Smithfield Market. In the novel, this is a moment of complete, all-consuming despair. On stage, by contrast, Nancy is hauled up in a harness, dangling alongside a row of puppet pig carcasses for a musical number that nudges the ridiculous into the realm of the offensive. It’s greeted not with empathy for the character’s suffering, but with muffled snorts of embarrassment.

So, again, whose story is this? You can tell a lot about a narrative from its ending. Waters’ novel closes with “a rising ripple of applause”, as though in the quiet contentment that Nancy finds with Florence she has finally stepped onto the right stage and into the right story. At the Lyric, on the other hand, Nancy wrestles back her story with just enough time to hide it away again, as the heavy velvet curtain falls on her and Flo’s private happiness. Wade and Turner do at least problematise the fashion of their storytelling, but Nancy is granted only enough narrative agency to bring about her own disappearance. And that, ultimately, is the most worrying music hall turn of them all: the vanishing act.