Writer: Sarah Waters
Adapted for the stage by: Hattie Naylor
Director: Alastair Whatley
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
The desire to turn every successful book by every successful author into a film, TV series or stage play is arguably as much about milking a franchise than it is about bringing the writer or the writing to a new audience. While it can lead to imaginative re-inventions that stand in their own right, it can also lead to productions that are just shadows of the source material. Hattie Naylor’s adaptation of The Night Watch is closer to the latter than it is to the former.
Set in the 1940s in London against the backdrop of the second world war, the play opens in 1947 with a series of scenes that focus on different characters all of whose lives appear to be connected in ways they may or may not know. Robert Fraser, a journalist and former conscientious objector speaks to Duncan, a person he was in prison with and asks about his sister Viv. Viv is working in an early dating agency alongside Helen whose life is linked to hers through a series of people and events that emerge over the course of the second act. There are also Duncan’s landlord Mr Mundy who is an ex-prison warden, Julia, a writer who is in a relationship with Helen, and Kay a former ambulance driver, who opens the play by noting that people’s pasts are so much more interesting than their futures.
This observation is the reason why both the book and play move in a reverse chronological order, with the second act shifting the action back at first to 1944 and then later to 1941 as the threads of the stories are tied together and the links between the people and the events that brought them to where they are now becomes clear.
The problem with this is that it turns the main question in the play into ‘how did they get here?’ rather than ‘where are they heading to?’ and removes a lot of the dramatic tension it could have had. The first act serves largely to set up the second. The characters are fascinating and complicated people, but robbed of context, scenes between Julia and Helen or Duncan and Mr Mundy don’t have the impact they could have had. In the second act, there is no sense of anticipation as we know the outcomes. The explanations are not as compelling as the lives unfolding with no way of knowing where the journeys will end.
With the time devoted to Mundy and Fraser in act 1 being something of a red herring as neither are central characters in the story, it also feels as if the play suffers from introducing too many strands and ends up skimming the surface of the central ones without ever diving deeply into the characters and relations at the heart of them.
It’s an adaptation that is perhaps too faithful to the book. In following it structurally it doesn’t take enough account of the demands of the stage and the difference between this and a full-length novel. It recreates the story but does so at the expense of fully conveying the emotions and themes that underpin the novel.
Runs until 19 October 2019 then touring | Image: Mark Douet