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Nightfall review at Bridge Theatre, London – ‘frustratingly safe’

The cast of Nightfall at Bridge Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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This is only the third play at the Bridge Theatre – and the third configuration, from end-on in Young Marx, promenade in Julius Caesar, to thrust here – and it seems they’re still working out what the space can do, what works and what doesn’t. Barney Norris’ latest play doesn’t.

It’s a small, intimate piece set on four evenings in a struggling farm in Hampshire. There’s the daughter’s struggle to pursue her dream, break away from the trap of home life, and the mum and son who believe in duty, responsibility, heredity. A Brexit theme runs through too, although it feels a little behind the curve.

The line between style and staleness is slim. When does a writer’s style just become repetition, falling back on familiar themes and rhythms over and over again? Nightfall picks up on so many elements of Norris’ previous work – grief, overlooked rural communities and family ties – without ever pushing the style forward. It’s a very safe play.

He’s emulating the well-made play, the big family drama – complete with big emotional speeches for each of the characters – but these don’t feel like real people, just a mouthpiece shaped into four acts.

Part of the issue is the space itself. The Bridge Theatre is too big for something slight like this. It would work in a studio or a smaller fringe theatre but here it’s overexposed and, because of that, we can see the bones through the skin.

Rae Smith’s backdrop is a work of art. It’s made of sheets of metal whose ripples distort the blue and orange lighting to create a permanent sunset. The sheets are blackened at the bottom, and as the sunset deepens these dark patches look like the shadows of hills across some great vista.

The rest of Smith’s set is the garden of a farmhouse, with worn lawn and tree stump and bench. On top of that, Chris Davey’s sublime lighting imperceptibly darkens with each scene from evening to night time.

Sion Daniel Young, as son Ryan, carries Laurie Sansom’s production, particularly in the relationship with his mum Jenny, played by Claire Skinner. As she reminisces about Ryan’s late dad, Young sits next to her slightly awkward at her display of raw emotion, feigning boredom because boys aren’t very good at talking to their mums, but giving enough murmurs to appease her.

Young’s attentiveness as an actor really stands out. He’s always reacting, always in the room. A couple of moments play to Skinner’s strengths, but she doesn’t quite nail the sharp swings from kindness to pettiness and even cruelty.

Norris builds mystery and subtext, then doesn’t sustain them. Everything is explained away with blunt, slightly trite lines. While the drama picks up in the second act and the exchanges are meatier, by then it’s too late.

 

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Verdict
Barney Norris' intimate, if frustratingly safe, new play set in rural Hampshire
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