It must have required plenty of can-do home front spirit to transform Sarah Waters’ 1940s-set novel exploring love among women during wartime into a theatrical equivalent of a page-turner.
Apart from dramatising Waters’ skilful plotting, how do you cope with a fabulous narrative told in reverse chronology, rich in the minutia of everyday life in threadbare, peacetime London or under the scary Blitz conditions? And how do you bring stage life to a group of interlinked individuals still haunted by the physical dangers, suppressed erotic pleasures, unspoken passions and troubled relationships of their recent war-torn lives.
Simplicity is the key here. A creative pulling together of Hattie Naylor’s fine, character-driven adaptation, the fluidity of Rebecca Gatward’s direction and Georgia Lowe’s ingenious design – a slowly revolving circular platform constantly edging everyone back to the origins of their unsettled futures – keeps faithful to the rewind motion of the book, paring it down while still unlocking its melancholic mood and emotional intensity.
Admittedly, beginning in 1947, the play takes time to hook on to who’s who and why they remain caught up in 1944 and 1941. But it rapidly opens up as a tantalising piece of theatre, shot through with the same-sex love that dared to speak its name in a hot war climate.
The actors are all completely spot-on, led by Jodie McNee as the troubled Kay – a sort of emotional walking wounded – and Joe Jameson is quietly heart-rending as a victim of repressive sexual morality in a production that connects with its literary origins but stands alone as terrific theatre.