The Night Watch – Richmond Theatre, London

Writer: Hattie Naylor adapted from the book by Sarah Waters

Director: Alastair Whatley

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Without a doubt, The Night Watch is one of Sarah Waters’ finest novels. Meticulously researched, it follows the lives of a group of people, including four lesbians, over the Second World War. But instead of starting in 1939, Waters begins her book in 1947. The middle section of the novel covers 1944 and the second Blitz of London while the final part tells us how all these people came to meet each other in the first place. By subverting chronology, Waters is able to conclude the book with an impossibly happy ending. This trick works well on the page, but this travelling production, now at Richmond Theatre, struggles with this structure.

The same problem with form was encountered by the BBC, who dramatized the whole book in 90 minutes in 2011. Hattie Naylor’s stage adaptation is longer at two hours, but only one character comes to life, that of Kay Langrish. Emotionally damaged by the war we first see her wandering bombsites and worrying about the ring she gave away in the War. Other plots appear too; Factory worker Duncan receives a visit from his old prison cellmate, but it’s unclear why they were incarcerated. Duncan’s sister works in a dating agency with a gal – in this production all the women are ‘gals’ – who dreams of wearing her old pink pyjamas.

Scenes are slow and long, and some even seem superfluous to the action. The early scene where Duncan and his old gaoler visit a Christian Science faith healer could be excised completely, and is an odd way to start this story of lesbian desire. Fortunately, after the interval the war is now in full swing and the play’s initial mysteries are gradually resolved. But despite the searchlights and the loud explosions, there is no excitement here. The freedom that the war provided to some women, so exhilarating in the novel, is muted on the stage.

The set, a burnt out house and some rubble on wheels, is ugly, but functional. It perhaps gets in the way too much meaning that only the front of the stage is used. The lights, too, are simple and do little to evoke Hitler’s bombing campaigns, and the fear that they brought. However, in spite of the set the actors acquit themselves well, especially Phoebe Pryce, who plays Kay with a wonderful deep pitched cut-glass accent, and there is good work too by Louise Coulthard as Viv, though her story is thin. Sam Jenkins-Shaw brings some much needed comedy to his role as Cole, but otherwise this a dreary evening, which loses the hope encapsulated in Waters’ bittersweet ending.

It’s heartening to see a play with lesbians as the leading characters travelling Britain’s regions, but unfortunately this version of The Night Watch is underpowered and cannot match the verve of the original.

Runs until 9 November 2019

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