Full disclosure: I haven’t read Harriet Lane’s debut novel Alys, Always, so I can’t tell you if it’s any good. What I can tell you, however, is that writer Lucinda Coxon and director Nicholas Hytner have turned it into a thoroughly disappointing play. For a thriller, it’s weirdly suspense-free. It is also thin, aimless and mired in cliché – and Hytner’s production, for all its starry cast, is startlingly naff.
The plot, characters, milieu and dialogue all look and sound as if they’ve been ripped-off from a bad TV drama. Bob Crowley’s sterile set even resembles a TV – a white cube splashed with predictable, illustrative video imagery.
Joanne Froggatt of Downton fame is Frances, a discontented journalist, on her way back to London after Christmas with her parents when she witnesses a fatal road accident. She exchanges a few panicked words with the dying driver, who turns out to be Alys Kyte, wife of celebrated novelist Laurence (Robert Glenister).
When Alys’ bereaved family contact her, Frances – a subeditor on a Sunday broadsheet’s books section, overlooked at work and contemptuous of her own ordinary provincial background – suddenly finds herself admitted to a charmed circle of status, money and privilege. And she likes it – so much so she will go to extreme lengths to infiltrate the Kytes’ world and acquire their glossy, magazine-spread lifestyle.
A resonant satire on the chatterati is clearly intended, but everything rings hollow, from the underwritten protagonist – a stereotype of scheming, sexually manipulative femininity – to the creaking plot mechanics and toe-curling dialogue.
Themes are toyed with and abandoned. There’s the odd literary reference (Rebecca, Howards End), yet instead of any meaningful exploration of social and professional power hierarchy, or an elaboration on identity and the ways in which we spin personal narratives, we get lazy reliance on the cultural signifiers of brand names and celebrity. There are references to Agas, Melvyn Bragg, “Harvey Nicks”, Planet Organic and a throwaway mention of rough sleepers outside Hatchards in Piccadilly.
The newspaper offices where Frances works are laughably inauthentic – anxiety over the industry’s future is dismissed in a few weak gags.
While Froggatt’s Frances is gamely shinning up the greasy pole, she’s hampered by clumsy clods of narrative monologue and stiff staging. But it’s the Kyte family who get lumbered with the script’s worst atrocities, in particular Leah Gayer as spoilt daughter Polly. At times the actors’ struggle against the material seems truly wretched. And ultimately, what’s the point? Detours for red herrings and the odd shouty face-off aside, from its initial squealing brakes to its final, gear-grinding anticlimax, this is one big car crash.