The Night Watch: Passions & Torments in Wartime London

Wednesday 4th September 2019 at York Theatre Royal.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Night Watch is one of Sarah Waters’ more complex novels, directed here by Alastair Whatley. It’s a story which toys with chronology to present the incomplete conclusion before backtracking to the introductions leading to those first glimpses of our characters and the dynamics between them. Hattie Naylor’s adaptation of Waters’ work finds merit in its faithful depiction of characters and events while bringing war time London and its aftermath into being in live performance.

Like much of Waters’ work, the experiences of female characters are central here. In wartime, relationships are made and dashed to pieces with the falling of a bomb or an opportunistic development in the darkness of an unexpected blackout. Against this backdrop of unpredictable daily life we see a variety of characters intertwining their joys and pains, demonstrating the good old theory of Six Degrees of Separation very nicely.

Phoebe Price is our central focus as Kay – androgynous, more than a little awkward and leading with a kind of disarming juvenile bluntness, she’s an intriguing woman caught up in all sorts of internal and external frustrations. In wartime, she’s the poster girl for pitching in and doing your part; of the stepping up of shushed and infantilised women to take roles full of danger and grit such as trawling steaming wrecks in search of lives to salvage. Mara Allen is great as Mickey, the efficient and professional comrade of our over-wrought lead. Where Kay plays fast and loose with protocol, letting her humanity guide her actions, Mickey provides the voice of reason and self-preservation, offering up an apt pairing. 

Kay is tied up in emotionally turbulent romances and Florence Roberts makes a great Helen: one minute full of whimsy and the next petulant intensity as she flies the flag for Brontë-esque infatuations. Izabella Urbanowicz is excellent as the somewhat duplicitous Julia – a character inviting as much arm’s length connection as sceptic judgement; all boundaries are blurred in wartime after all. Speaking of romances, Louise Coulthard’s Viv is a great representative victim of her time and Coulthard inspires great connection with the helpless character, bringing to the fore the struggle of women torn between the unexpected freedoms of wartime and the ‘safety’ of the silent expectations preceding them.

Alongside the central female stories and romances we catch glimpses of the toll wartime took on the men expected to click their heels with relish and volunteer their lives willingly. Lewis Mackinnon is a quiet presence to begin but comes into his own in act two as Duncan’s shocking and moving story finally comes to light.

David Woodhead’s stage design is a strength, taking us to the streets of a stranded, wounded London stuck in the strangle hold of war debris past present and impending with rubble which invades the stage space as the narrative flits between different stages of the war. The aesthetic paralleling of Kay and Julia is also a notable aspect of design. Nic Farman’s lighting is atmospheric and suitably gloomy but it does mean that depending on your seat, there’s an unnecessary sense of distance from characters as their facial expressions and details of their performances are obscured by muted monochrome hues.

Yet for all its strengths of casting and sincere engagement with its source material, the production frequently falls into pockets of laborious inaction. Exchanges slow to an irksome lack of pace just where it feels momentum should build and there are scenes which cry out for ruthless editing, namely those in act one between Mr Mundy and Duncan. Developments are efficiently brisk and the cast do justice to their limited allocated time but there’s no getting away from the sense of lull pervading too many scenes in Act One, though thankfully Act Two does more than enough to demonstrate the best capabilities of this production. 

This take on The Night Watch is uneven but there are certainly strengths enough to uphold the production as a well produced adaptation of a collection of intriguing intertwining stories. Waters’ original work is proven to be great in its use of an engaging narrative structure to explore a bygone era which continues to fascinate, not to mention the story’s undeniable importance when it comes to bringing LGBTQ+ characters and stories to our stages. War, passions, sacrifices and the unstoppable force of time are the big ideas explored in this story and it’s all very nicely carried by a well-cast ensemble.

The Night Watch is a A York Theatre Royal and Original Theatre Company co-production. It plays York Theatre Royal until 7th September 2019 and you can find tickets here.

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