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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Royal Court - Jerwood Theatre

By Matt Wolf

  Nadia, Philip and Oliver

Where's Bill Nighy when you really need him? The question hovers pregnantly in the air over Jeremy Herrin's London premiere of David Hare's The Vertical Hour, the 2006 Broadway play that has crossed the Atlantic in a sympathetic production that nonetheless forces a complete re-evaluation of a problematic text. Whereas Nighy's New York star turn - the actor's Broadway debut - swept up everything (and everyone, including co-star Julianne Moore ) in its wake some 14 months ago,this lower-key London version gives pride of thespian place to Indira Varma, inheriting Moore's role in a star-making performance of her own as the Yale professor, Nadia Blye, who ends up a Saint Joan for our ongoing era of the Iraq War.

I still find Nadia's curtain pronouncement among the less plausible aspects of a play that remains minor-league Hare, however bracing it is on any stage to hear playwrights engaging directly with the times in which we live, outside of the cocoon that cossets too much contemporary drama. But the absence of Nighy leaves a crucial gap where sexual charisma is concerned in a triangular drama that finds the decidedly American Nadia displaced to the Anglo-Welsh border in the company of her slightly younger, hunky English boyfriend, Philip (Tom Riley is terrific in that part) and the same man's outspoken father, Oliver (Anton Lesser), a sexually errant GP who harbors a guilty secret that comes pouring forth in a (largely contrived) long night of the soul. A man who has walked away from a life in which he was making serious money, Oliver both plays the seducer of sorts to the gradually smitten Nadia and also throws down a gauntlet on the topic of worldly engagement: his retreat from life is the very catalyst, we come to understand, that propels Nadia back into it, at the price of the very relationship that brought her into contact with Oliver in the first place.

A supporter of the liberation of Iraq at the cost of the very sympathy with Yale students who, Nadia is quick to argue, haven't really got a clue, this latest Hare heroine - Hare-oine? - is the antithesis in some ways to his Susan Traherne all those decades ago in Plenty: a woman whose idealism cracks open as she cracks up. Nadia, by contrast, forsakes cynicism - and, by extension, England - in favor of a very American embrace of her beliefs and her capacity to act on them, and it's only a shame, in the scenes that find her on the New Haven campus particularly, that Nadia comes across as a playwright's idea of a role rather than the role itself scarcely a line from those scenes ring true. (And while we're at it, Joseph Kloska is totally miscast as the lovesick young student who opens the play: paging Dan Bittner, from the Broadway staging.)

The Vertical Hour is on far firmer, fresher ground once Nadia is wrenched out of her natural habitat, and Varma, a Pinter regular here moving on to Hare, manages to combine intellectual zeal with a natural, ready sensuality that somewhat surprisingly eluded Moore last time round. Indeed, as the play progresses on an elegantly abstracted design from Mike Britton, lit to suggest the gathering arrival of dawn by Howard Harrison, one begins to wish it were possible to bring together Varma and Nighy in some ideal rendering of a flawed text Nighy's innate insouciance - here's a man so relaxed in his own skin that he seems to inhabit a singularly eccentric theatrical zen - is essential to a role that can otherwise come across as a scold or merely a smart-ass. Lesser has the quicksilver wit for the part without eithe


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