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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Wyndham's


  Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan/ Ph: John Haynes

How strong is love? Can it overcome a fundamental difference in values? Compensate for what one sees as another’s moral failings? Can the wealthy and privileged ever truly empathise with the struggling and dispossessed? And can those who have nothing ever forgive those who have everything? 
Through the prism of a once-passionate love affair, David Hare’s 1995 drama examines social division and liberal ideals, with mixed results. At its best, the play is gripping, sharply witty, bracingly engaging; at its worst, it is preachy, contrived and improbable. Happily, in this fine revival directed by Stephen Daldry, it is taut and superbly acted – and, if the political arguments are predictable and stacked, they remain fiercely pertinent nearly 20 years after the piece was first seen at the National Theatre.
Kyra (Carey Mulligan, in her West End stage debut) teaches in a tough East End school and lives in a chilly, dilapidated council flat on an estate on the other side of London. As a bitter winter sets in outside, she’s visited at home by Edward (Matthew Beard), the 18-year-old son of her former lover, Tom (Bill Nighy, returning to the role he played in the West End in 1997). Edward’s mother has died of cancer. His dad – a wealthy and successful restaurateur – is, Edward says, a “fuck-pig,” emotionally remote and obsessed with money. Edward is desperate for comfort and tenderness; Kyra attempts to dispense a little of it, along with a mug of tea. But if the encounter is difficult, it’s nothing to the battle royale to follow when Tom himself turns up, interrupting her evening shower and toting a bottle of whisky. As the night wears on – and as Kyra rejects Tom’s offer of dinner to prepare a pasta dish in her tatty kitchen – they chew over the dynamics of their six-year relationship, the past that binds them, the present that divides them and the future that they could still choose to share.
Mulligan’s Kyra has a captivating poise and a low, measured tone that effortlessly commands both the eye and the attention. It’s a performance of great control and intelligence, even when Hare has her speechifying about the working class, and the teaching and social work professions, in platitudes that verge on the dogmatic. Nighy, too, is terrific. Whip-lean in a snug wool overcoat that he refuses to remove in Kyra’s arctic apartment, he moves with a balletic flourish, lifting a packet of dried spaghetti with exquisite disdain, and navigating his way around the ravaged furniture with fastidious grace. His creamy self-assurance masks a desperate yearning for love and comfort that mingles with his incomprehension of what he sees as Kyra’s hairshirt existence, and the whole mixture simmers with the tomato sauce on the stove, until it curdles into contempt, anger and despair. And though it’s clear exactly whose side Hare is on, he does allow Tom some scathing remarks about her romanticisation of poverty and the priggishness that lurks beneath her socialist altruism.
It’s difficult to buy Kyra’s assertion that, although she was close friends with Tom’s wife – who, in hiring a teenage Kyra to work in one of the family restaurants, inadvertently paved the way for her husband’s adulterous affair – she never felt guilty about betraying her, because the secret love between Kyra and Tom was pure. And there’s a touch of sentimentality about the play’s eventual conclusion, with Kyra sharing a redemptive breakfast with the wounded Edward. But Daldry orchestrates the action throughout with a light, sure touch and an unwavering precision. In a country more atomised than ever, Hare’s play still speaks to us – and it’s hard to imagine it given voice with more strength and clarity than it is here.


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