Writer: Mike Bartlett
Director: James Hillier
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Although Mike Bartlett is responsible for some of the best plays of the last ten years (Earthquakes in London, Cock, and King Charles III), it was the TV’s Doctor Foster that turned his name into a household one. Taking advantage of this fame, the Arcola, along with Defibrillator Theatre, have dusted down Bartlett’s first play, which had only previously seen the light of day as a radio play in 2006. Notwithstanding some fine performances, Not Talking can’t quite escape its radio roots.
The success of Doctor Foster, the first series at least, was down to the fact that everything that happened was well within the realms of the plausible. Grief and suspicion turned quotidian events into a melodrama that we watched in our millions. Not Talking, while taking on some big issues, such as rape and suicide, relies on a few too many improbable coincidences.
Set around the turn of this century, Not Talking begins with James reminiscing about the start of the Second World War, in which he refused to fight as a self-proclaimed conscientious objector. At the consequent tribunal he was grilled for his political stance: ‘If a Nazi was raping your sister in front of you, would you just let it happen?’ For James, this is a rhetorical scenario, but for Mark, a new soldier in the play’s present day, this is a horrific reality. After a night out, Mark witnesses the rape of Amanda, a fellow soldier and his future girlfriend. The rape is perpetrated by officers and they order both Mark and Amanda to keep quiet.
Despite this enforced silence, Amanda finds her voice by playing the piano, Chopin specifically. With this dependence on music, it’s easy to see how this play was such a success on the radio, helped, no doubt, that Richard Briers played James and June Whitfield played his wife Lucy. It is Lucy’s story that is the most compelling here and Kika Markham gives her a very English sang-froid, her decisions always utilitarian. David Horovitch does well with James, the Christian philanderer, and Gemma Lawrence plays Amanda with great sensitivity. Lawrence Walker brings a good deal of energy to his role as Mark, but perhaps the cheeky-chappie routine needs to be paired with a little more complexity.
The narrative is pleasingly difficult to follow at the start, as the characters each address the audience telling their shared stories out of time, rarely interacting with each other. But after a while, this structure begins to flail and we crave dialogue, and intercourse. As a result, most of the theatricality comes from Amy Jane Cook’s set, which initially seems simple, but then lights up the action ingeniously.
With the coincidences, which would be a shame to reveal, Not Talking is a little too tidy for its own good, and, in spite of its subject matter, seems slight, perhaps unsurprisingly as it is a first play after all. As Bartlett confirms in the programme, ‘it is a radio play for the stage’, but, apart from the set, little has been gained in this move; Not Talking is, in fact, all talk.
Runs until 2 June 2018 | Image: Contributed