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Brighton Fringe 2021

The Vertical Hour

Pretty Villain Productions

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Historical, Political, Theatre

Venue: The Rialto Theatre, 11 Dyke Road Brighton


Low Down

Directed and Co-Produced by Roger Kay with Co-Producer Lauren Varnfield, Lighting and Sound Chris Postle, Artistic Consultant Christine Kempell. Till June 5th


The Vertical Hour. That brief space where a medic can make a difference on the battlefield and save a life, Yale Professor Nadia Blye says to Dr Oliver Lucas, who ought to know – though he’s escaped specialism and London for a Shrewsbury GP practice. A vocation Oliver describes as ‘Telling patients the truth and being with them till they die.’

But then that’s a bit like Nadia’s been telling the world: years on battlefields from Bosnia to Iraq as a journalist, which Oliver hasn’t. At curtain-up he tells us he once made a right turn indicating left, perhaps all his life – though once it kills someone. And there’s someone else who died with him. Is that his fault too? Either way, it’s a trigger, an hour.

Director and co-producer Roger Kay unleashes this acclaimed, slightly flawed 2006 play with such a team at the Rialto that I never need see another production. With a few simple chairs, pink blankets, a white coffee table, fine lighting and sound by Chris Postle, everything’s cleared for acting.

What’s brought this pair together is Oliver’s son Philip, who turned down medical school to become a physio, moving to the USA and just incidentally making a packet from the worried well. A very good physio, hands-on man, from fixing backs to roofs that damage those backs. Nadia instantly wants him for that, his consummate calm, eschewing politics and theory.

His father, Blake-reading intellectual Oliver, all too attuned to WMD and politics, is very different. Too like her. Oliver’s reading a book on linguistics because it might key a better reading of life. He likes to explain he’s like that. They’ve met in the hour before a Shrewsbury dawn, before Philip stirs. Philip who on impulse has them both come so he can reconcile or perhaps – as Oliver suggests – say goodbye. Who’ll convince who? Who’s seducing?

We start with a pathetic attempt. James MacAuley’s uncannily convincing frat boy Dennis Dutton has been sent to broaden his pinhole horizons before being swallowed up in his father’s empire. No use Nadia telling him she’s about resolving disputes, diplomacy to make settlement palatable. It’s her mission. He won’t acknowledge capitalism exists but emphatically does Margo Henson’s Nadia Blye. He declares for her. Negotiate that.

But they’re not wholly unaligned. Someone twenty-two, intellectually, morally contemptible, Dutton frames one part of that terrifying American innocence. The loss of which – as Gary Yonge said in 2003 -the U.S. always finds again: just in time for the next bad idea.  Hare brings hot coals to Broadway: they loved it. No dramatist then dared talk Iraq. ‘Like a five-course meal after candy-floss’ Michael Billington pronounced.

And we end in a Yale seminar too, with a very different student and Nadia in a different place. Caitlin Cameron’s Terri Scholes hunches with doubt in the finale – an even more ungrateful role than MacAuley’s, but telling: Cameron holds herself in, squinting with pain as she offers explanations.

Throughout, U.S.-trained Henson is pitch-perfect, more than able to fill the space Julianne Moore filled at the work’s premiere.

More contemporary of the son of Oliver (who declares he’s fifty-eight) she’s really tangling with, Henson’s Nadia is warm: she’s all over the feely physio who’s all too touchy in Shrewsbury; but she’s righty brittle too, in that bright-eyed East Coast way. Nadia’s contradictory: gestural, denying psychology but finding it just in time for the next snap idea. That proves absorbing.

Henson’s tricky assignment – slippery as any Nadia gives to students in Yale or takes on a battlefield – is to convince us of Nadia. A liberal journalist-academic, capitalist-critiquing but interventionist when states can’t look after themselves, need the US to emulate, as student Dutton blandly opines. It’s as if Nadia’s swallowed the whole of America.

Innocence can take many forms. Nadia isn’t innocent, so she thinks. In Bosnia she saw what non-intervention does. She lost one innocence there, in the form of Marek, heroically heedless Polish journalist. And she’s compromised in the eyes of many liberal students by heeding that call from Bush Jr’s White House, to give expert witness, to get her hands dirty, negotiate.

We get less of young coupledom as Jack Kristiansen negotiates a very different character in Philip to those we’re used to applauding in this actor. Someone who beneath his Nadia-vaunted calm is told by Hamilton Wilson’s Oliver not to show weakness: Nadia will leave him. Philip interprets that as notice his father will effect just that, will try seducing, like all those other women, breaking up from his doctor wife whom Philip still cleaves to, back in the family home Oliver left. Philip clings even in flight. Oliver calmly walks away.

Exchanges between Kristiansen and Wilson tense with hurt and simmering suspicion – all on Philip’s side, as Kristiansen registers each flick-away of Wilson’s unruffled Oliver. Kristiansen coils resentment, unleashes fear and flinches back so Nadia won’t notice. Too late.

Wilson not only looks like David Hare (big hair) and not wholly unlike the role’s originator Bill Nighy; he takes the role as if he’s lived it all his life. Tall, massingly urbane, massively fair, Wilson glints: Oliver might be the devil his son thinks him, but there’s infinitely more. Wilson also has the vocal pitch to deliver an intellectual who sees himself unflinchingly. Though he’ll reveal this to an equal only, perhaps isn’t consciously seducing anyway. But his very liberality of outlook, his psychology, handing back a Greek gift of self-recognition to Nadia, is no easy one. And he gives it with the insouciance of a god.

Hare’s put much of his righteous self in Oliver, humanised him with obligatory flaws. Oliver’s narrational monologues though make him an authorial conjurer. Like a David Hare 2 on stage. He’s twisted Nadia out of a textbook. Brilliantly though.

Conscious of writing for Nighy, Hare’s freighted Oliver with the kind of rasp-weary mix of cynicism and sibilant need that makes Nighy’s 2014 performance in Hare’s 1995 Skylight – with Terence Conran-inspired character Tom Sergeant – so memorable. Here, it might be just too much. Wilson brings to Oliver an amplitude, less of the seamed satyr, more a libertine overhearing himself, realising what he’s about. And an appealing generosity of spirit. Wilson at a guess (I wasn’t in Broadway at the time) is even more convincing.

Similarly Henson’s sinewy coffee-nervous persona – snapping more than biscuits – makes a youthfully convincing Nadia; surely that explains her more than the great originating actor might. There’s less scope for troubled inwardness in this role, more a furrowed manifestation. Henson convinces us Nadia contradicts herself from the wrong kind of inexperience, and decides as she does.

For that reason this seems a definitive way to experience the play – notwithstanding the Royal Court premiere of January 2008 which I also didn’t see. This is simply thrilling acting and there’s not a weak link. The definitive Fringe revival of a mainstream play this year. Absorbing, baggy, intimate. Five courses for the soul. See it.