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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
SPEAKING IN TONGUES
at the Duke of York's

MISUNDERSTOOD LOVE
By JOHN NATHAN

  John Simm and Lucy Cohu/ Ph: Johan Persson

Peeling an onion is probably an overused image when it comes to describing a play’s revealed layers of narrative. But with Andrew Bovell’s plays, there can be few better analogies.
 
This Australian writer’s work was last seen on the London stage when his apocalyptic offering, When The Rain Stops Falling, arrived at the Almeida earlier this year.
 
That intricately constructed play leaps forward and back in time as if the cast had rehearsed from a script whose pages had been thrown into the air and then put together again in no particular order. This, of course, was not the case. Every scene is meticulously positioned and serves to either ask a question or answer one.
 
With Speaking in Tongues, which is best known as the 2001 movie Lantana, the story is also fiendishly structured, eventually revealing itself to be a psychological thriller in which people get hurt by those who want to behave decently.
 
If one of the overarching themes is dysfunctional love, the focus is on two middle-aged, reluctantly adulterous couples. We first encounter them at the beginning of their affairs. Though each couple is in their motel room, they share the same scene. 
 
Bovell splices his dialogue together so that many of the lines are spoken simultaneously by more than one guilt-wracked adulterer, or so that they are delivered as counterpoint to other lines. It may be hard on the ear but the lesson is well made—that human behaviour often conforms to a pattern over which none of us has much control.
 
Though it lasts only two scenes, this is also a vehicle that results in a high degree of artifice. As the couples nervously approach and withdraw from their illicit clinch, the four actors are forced into speaking in a slowed synchronicity while somehow giving the impression of fluidity. Not so in the film, in which style is far less conspicuously present, and which brilliantly finds a gripping tension in the banal. Bovell probably won't mind the observation. He wrote both the film and the play.
 
If there is a hero, it is disheveled cop Leon, played here by John Simm. It is through Leon that we realize how lives are knitted together by threads of overlapping stories. For instance, one of Leon’s cases is a banker (Ian Hart) whose wife (Lucy Cohu) has gone missing. The chief suspect is a neighbour of Leon’s mistress. If that sounds too much like a coincidence, Bovell’s point is that we are all unknowingly connected much more than we realize.
 
But anyone who has seen the movie version of Bovell’s play will miss how tension is wrought out of suburban banality. Toby Frow’s rather too-slick production and Ben Stone’s design confuses noir with dark. The black box set with its lurid red neon lines often feels like a misplaced attempt at cool. Thankfully Kerry Fox is spot on as the childless housewife “plain” Jane who suffers from self-esteem issues. Indeed all four actors—who play two or, in the case of Hart, three roles—do a fine job.
 
But after The Shawshank Redemption, which also recently opened in the West End, this is the second time in as many weeks that this theatre critic has had to recommend the movie over the play.
 


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