So far, the Bridge Theatre hasn’t quite been the unstoppable hit-making machine that many were anticipating when it opened back in October 2017. Nicks Hytner and Starr have made a patchy start in commercial theatre – an impressive immersive Shakespeare and a well-liked one-woman play, interspersed with several big flops from several big writers.
The Tower Bridge venue’s latest production is Alys, Always, a stage adaptation of Harriet Lane’s bestselling 2012 psychological thriller about a young arts journalist who, after witnessing the death of a famous author’s wife, inveigles her way into his family’s social circle.
It’s adapted for the theatre by Lucinda Coxon, who wrote the screenplay for the award-winning 2015 film The Danish Girl, and features Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt and stage and screen star Robert Glenister. Hytner himself directs a work by a woman for the first time ever, and his production runs until the end of March.
But has the Bridge finally delivered the big hit it has been waiting for? Does Lane’s novel successfully switch from page to stage? What do the critics think of the two Nicks’ newest project?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Alys, Always gripped readers when it was published seven years ago, with its story of Frances, a lowly journalist on thinly-fictional newspaper’s books desk, and her death-driven ascent through the social circles of London literary crowd. Does Coxon’s stage adaptation similarly succeed?
A few critics think it suffices, with Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★) calling it “a smart, slick psychodrama with a mischievous satirical undercurrent” and Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★★) admiring how Frances’ “beguiling” transformation from nobody to somebody is “well-caught”.
“By the standards of cutting-edge drama-houses such as the Royal Court, it’s fairly tame stuff,” writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★). “And yet it quietly grips. There’s a timely examination here of generational and societal gulfs in expectation, the way the daily grind affects behaviour, modifies identities, guides and warps us.”
Most, however, aren’t particularly impressed. Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★) labels it “another predictable (and sometimes far-fetched) drama set amongst the glitterati of London’s literati”, Clare Allfree (Metro, ★★) writes that it “mildly entertains rather than chilling the marrow”, while Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★) finds it “quite enjoyable” but “incredibly lightweight.”
“There is nothing really to disturb or disrupt,” continues Crompton, and Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) agrees, noting that the play is “suitably observant without being compellingly dramatic”.
“The idea of the outsider given entry to a forbidden world has a long literary history: it is there in Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” he adds. “While this version lacks the psychological or political resonance of those works, the real problem is that Frances’ progress goes virtually unchecked: she is never in jeopardy.”
Sam Marlowe (The Stage, ★) is particularly perturbed. This, she says, is “a thoroughly disappointing play. For a thriller, it’s weirdly suspense-free. It is also thin, aimless and mired in cliché”.
In a four-decade career that has seen him rise from fringe venues to the biggest job in British theatre, Nick Hytner has – astonishingly – never directed a play by a woman until now. Can his steady hand help steer Coxon’s lukewarm script to safety?
Some critics are impressed by Hytner’s production, and particularly by Bob Crowley’s set and Luke Halls’ video projections.
It is “a thing of wonder, all sliding rooms and tables coming up from the depths” according to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★), and Crompton finds it “simple yet profoundly effective”.
“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,” reckons Lukowski.
Most critics, though, admire the staging for its competence, rather than its impact, with Mountford calling Hytner’s production “sleekly efficient” and Billington writing that “it is all smoothly done without ever creating a palpable sense of danger”.
Marlowe, meanwhile, is as disappointed in the staging as she is with the script. Crowley’s set is “sterile,” she writes, Halls’ projections “predictable” and Hytner’s direction “stiff.”
“I have seen far worse productions that tried to achieve more and I liked them better for it,” concludes Crompton. “With its elegant cello interludes, and its careful story-telling, this is theatre as an after-dinner mint, bland and inoffensive. And I wanted more to get my teeth into.”
Joanne Froggatt is familiar to most from her work in film and TV, principally thanks to her award-winning role in Downton Abbey. In Alys, Always, she plays protagonist Frances, and most critics think she is the best thing about Hytner’s production.
Mountford praises her for a “central performance of power and confidence”, while Shenton labels her “gripping”, and Treneman observes that “you really can’t take your eyes off her”.
“Froggatt pulls off the challenge of being inscrutable without being pointedly enigmatic, or so blank as to be dull,” writes Cavendish. “Poised and amused, Froggatt compels through her constant watchfulness, retaining the aloofness of an outsider while seeming unimpeachably approachable.”
Allfree calls her “an intriguing blank canvas” and she “captures with great precision that mixture of charming plausibility and ratlike cunning” according to Billington.
Glenister, known for roles in BBC dramas Hustle and Spooks, last appeared on stage in Glengarry Glen Ross in the West End in 2017, when he famously froze mid-performance. Most critics agree he’s back on form here. He’s “assured” according to Allfree, and “relaxed and confident” according to Crompton.
It’s another so-so show from the Bridge Theatre. A few four-star reviews, a lot of three-star ratings, a couple of twos, and a clanging one from Sam Marlowe in The Stage point to a production that is a long way from the critical hit the two Nicks must have been hoping for.
Most critics reckon Froggatt and Glenister pull their weight, but that Coxon’s adaptation doesn’t capture the chill of Lane’s original novel and that Hytner’s direction is more effective than affecting. It’s almost as if he should have got around to staging a woman’s words a few more times in his forty-year career.