Nightfall – The Bridge Theatre, London

Writer: Barney Norris

Director: Laurie Sansom

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Opening in October last year, the new Bridge Theatre created plenty of excitement, particularly with its plan to focus primarily on new work. The stunning revival of Julius Caesaraside, two new shows in and all that early promise is waning. In the time that Nicholas Hytner’s new auditorium was conceived and built, the theatrical landscape shifted, and the last 12 months has produced some exceptional new writing. After a lukewarm response to its inaugural piece Young Marx, Barney Norris’ new play Nightfallalso falters, leaving the theatre with a huge commissioning problem.

Set on a Hampshire Farm, Nightfall considers the effects of grief on one family struggling to come to terms with the limited opportunities before them. Living with controlling mother Jenny, 20-something Ryan has inherited the farm from his father and, with help from best friend Pete who is newly released from prison, they syphon oil from the nearby pipeline to help the ailing business. But Ryan’s sister Lou has history with Pete so his reappearance amongst them forces the family to re-evaluate their past and question their future.

Norris’ play has a lot of ideas about the stifling nature of grief, the dependency of family, the economic limitations of just doing a job rather than something you love, and the difficulty of living your life through other people. Frustratingly, all of these discussions are too quickly curtailed, squeezed out by the pedestrian pace of a plot in which very little actually happens. Much of the action sadly feels conventional and too slight, making it much harder for the audience to really invest in any of the characters.

While Olivia Lovibond has most of the best lines as the smart and sarcastic Lou who feels most contained by the pressures of family life, it is disappointing that Norris reduces the psychology of a female character to marriage and children. Is it not possible to conceive that her discomfort at seeing Pete again could result from a normal human combination of grief and the shock of his prison sentence, rather than there being a lost child involved? And in true rom-com fashion, her every reservation is utterly overthrown moments later with a marriage proposal towards the end of Act One.

It is a pity because Lovibond’s performance suggests so much more to Lou than the text allows us to see and she is the only character that elicits any real interest or range of feeling in response to the limited action of the play. By contrast, while Sion Daniel Young’s Ryan seems to depend on the bond with his sister and Pete, he is never really given a chance to discuss his own grief or open out his character. The audience is left only with an impression of a young man trying to make the best of it, and while he manages to stick three bricks together in his planned extension, the text prevents Young from building anything else of substance.

As controlling matriarch Jenny, Claire Skinner suggests increasing delusion, clinging to her adult children and to the land she has chronically mismanaged with her late husband. But while Jenny is argumentative and, at times, selfish, her penchant for wine and M&S nibbles doesn’t really suggest a farmer’s wife, and the audience never sees what the family actually farm. That lack of clarity extends to Pete (Ukweli Roach) whose character feels equally underdeveloped and just a cypher for the family fallout, rather than a rounded person dealing with the difficult aftermath of prison.

Nightfall tries to be a lot of things in 2 hours and 20-minutes, but it never feels entirely credible, which on Rae Smith’s slightly cartoony set is unfortunate. There are some interesting ideas in Norris’ work, particularly the desire to luxuriate in grief rather than face the practicalities of living on, and society’s tendency to repeat the views of others rather than deciding for yourself, but the production feels overstretched in the large Bridge Theatre space. Three shows in and Nicholas Hytner et al have plenty to think about, but with a notably thin audience on this second press night, it’s a wonder if Nightfallwill last the run.

Runs until 26 May 2018 | image: Contributed

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