For a unique insight into London during the war and a fascinating study of the psychology of survival, “The Night Watch” is a must. Currently showing at Richmond Theatre, “The Night Watch” is by Sarah Waters, adapted by Hattie Naylor and directed by Alastair Whatley. It is a fascinating exploration of the human condition. Set in London during the Blitz the intensity of wartime gives every relationship a sharper focus. The precarious and fragile nature of life is magnified as bombs drop and kill randomly. The Blitz represents a powerful vortex of life, love and death. “The Night Watch” unfolds as we move through the war into the post war period. We watch intrigued to see how these character’s deal with the challenges they face. It’s gripping stuff. If you thought you knew about London in the Blitz then think again.
“The Night Watch” shines a light into the social and psychological elements that are all too often overlooked. The cast is positively Dickensian in its variety and range. From a terrifying healer; Mrs Leonard (Izabella Urbanowicz) insisting that there is no such thing as pain, to a Lesbian ménage a trois, to the care of a big sister for her little brother, to male bonding in prison, to a dating agency and much more. Along the way we take in the songs of Noel Coward, the joy of wartime dancing, the terror of the sirens, tinned peaches, a pair of pink pyjamas and a heartrending version of “ A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”.
The play is structured around two triangles, one male the other female. In the male triangle an older man Mr Mundy (Malcolm James) and two younger men Duncan (Lewis Mackinnon) and Robert (Sam Jenkins-Shaw) try to find ways to cope with imprisonment, isolation and despair. The female triangle involves an unsentimental and unflinching portrayal of women in love with other women which makes for a very sobering insight into what it means to be human. Julia (Izabella Urbanowicz), Kay (Phoebe Pryce) and Helen (Florence Roberts) form a shifting balance of power and initiative. “The Night Watch” refers to Kay’s job as an air raid warden going out at night to rescue bomb damage victims. It’s in this capacity that she finds love among the ruins and rubble.
David Woodhead’s set, costumes and props are superbly realised. London is suggested by a backdrop consisting of St Pauls Cathedral, the great symbol of Britain’s resistance, the chimneys of Battersea power station and the façade of a house with the sides blown out. Rubble dominates the stage to both left and right. The rubble doubles as both bomb damage and a metaphor for the human damage the play explores. It’s a textbook case of a set designer fully realising the idea of the play.
The acting is superb. The accents from cut glass posh to South London demotic are pitch perfect. Every part is utterly believable. The actors have obviously spent hours and hours getting into their parts. All are excellent. Lewis Mackinnon as the traumatised young man Duncan is so watchable. Lewis gives a performance that just allows us to enter into Duncan’s torment and see the world as he experiences it. Stunningly good. Louise Coulthard as his sister Viv is vividly realised. Her range as she moves from concerned sister to deeply troubled young woman is quite brilliant.
With crisp, clear and compelling direction, wonderful sets, highly watchable acting, memorable songs and a profound script “The Night Watch” is well worth a watch.
Review by John O’Brien