Alistair McDowall is a darling of the Royal Court, and for good reason. His plays are genuinely inventive, unexpected, unnerving, even scary. He is constantly playing with form, and in this reviewer's opinion, is one of the only contemporary British writers to weave in fantasy and sci-fi successfully throughout his work, including the recent Royal Court premiere of The Glow, his space thriller X at the same venue, and the sci-fi horror Pomona, the show that made his name.
The Court initially put on all of it as a 30-minute play in 2020. Reading between the lines, it seems the Court wanted to remount this remarkable piece and commissioned McDowall to write two more short plays so there would be a full evening’s worth of work. Nothing wrong with that. But Northleigh, 1940 feels like filler, and In Stereo is a novel idea but both feel like sketches, unlike all of it which is fully formed and thriving. This is a shame, as McDowall more than has the potential to create sustained, scintillating work. Still, it is worth attending the evening, even just for the final sparkling gem.
Kate O'Flynn in all of it at the Royal Court. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Actor Kate O’Flynn (if you don’t know her, you should) is fabulous as always. At turns she’s hilarious, devastating, relatable, odd and everything between. McDowall has written all three plays for her specifically, and she doesn’t disappoint. Artistic director Vicky Featherstone and Royal Court associate director Sam Pritchard have teamed up to co-direct, with Pritchard directing Northleigh, 1940 and In Stereo, and Featherstone helming all of it.
So, what are the plays about? Northleigh, 1940 tells the muted story of a 30-year-old woman in war-torn Britain who recently lost her mother, and escapes into fantasy books and records. She has a restrained, quintessentially British conversation with her ageing father in their Morrison bomb shelter about her life and their strained relationship with their lost loved one. There’s an interesting formal twist at the beginning and at the end, and a few sweet moments between the father and the daughter, but that’s about it.
Next up is In Stereo, which takes place in an increasingly mouldy bedroom (clearly designed with glee by Merle Hensel, knowing how many of us have experienced this fungal menace in our own homes). Through the theatre’s stereo speakers, we hear the internal conversation of the woman who lives in the house, who’s unperturbed when she begins seeing herself multiply. Meanwhile, the mould is getting larger, larger, larger, and the conversations in her mind start to reproduce and augment. We won’t give away the ending, as it’s a lovely little surprise, but it’s classic, surreal McDowall. This piece has more of a performance art feel, with Kate O’Flynn slowly pacing the stage, and an old TV blinking out images of O’Flynn in fuzzy black-and-white portraits.
Now to the pièce de résistance: all of it. Simply put, the play illustrates a whole life span, from birth to death, of a typical British woman, her joys, her regrets, her ‘driving to work, driving to work, driving to work’. This is the moment where O’Flynn is really able to shine and offers a glittering performance; the text allows her to weave through a kaleidoscope of emotions, with laugh-out-loud moments littered throughout. There’s complexity, there’s mundanity, there’s the whole gambit in this half-hour, and by the end, O’Flynn has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand.
Is it worth seeing? Yes, definitely. But steel yourself with the understanding that you may have to wade through less exciting waters to get to the good waves.
|What||all of it, Royal Court review|
|Where||Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, SW1W 8AS | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Sloane Square (underground)|
06 Jun 23 – 17 Jun 23, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|