Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 15 September, 2011
Imagine a Stephen Poliakoff retrospective. So much of his work both for stage and screen, especially in more recent years, has been about memory and the past that an entire season of looking back at looking back might generate a temporal vortex that could make time travel a reality.
His first new stage play since 1999’s Remember This is squarely in the same territory, as a chance encounter reunites thirtysomethings Richard and Julie with the primary school teacher who had been so inspirational to them and a brace of her colleagues for a single long, story-filled night. Some of the stories are a few weeks or months old, some go back centuries; some are historical, most are personal. But this is clearly a narrative about narratives: Poliakoff is perhaps as fascinated by the power and status of stories as Philip Ridley.
It was once remarked that human beings are DNA’s way of replicating itself. The composite picture of London that emerges from Miss Lambert’s accounts of her compulsive nocturnal perambulations around the city and the “time-travel” exercises she used to undertake in school assemblies (which are themselves shown in flashback!) begins to suggest that its inhabitants are the city’s way of remembering itself.
Miss Lambert’s eccentric control of her environment, be it a park bench, a basement flat or an all-night greasy-spoon café, is reflected by the presence of Tracey Ullman in her first British stage appearance in an age. By this I do not mean that she is the wacky comedienne of the 1980s… precisely the opposite: she is so very disciplined that she compels our attention through the decorousness with which her character recounts eerie or horrifying episodes. In past and present alike David Troughton and Sorcha Cusack are, as it were, her wing-men. In contrast, Tom Riley’s Richard and Siân Brooke’s Julie could scarcely be less alike, united only by having been redeemed as children from attention deficit disorder and dyslexia respectively by being taught that they could take control for themselves.
The play’s ending is too pat in its affirmation, and the impact of the evening depends on one’s tastes for (and in) storytelling, but Poliakoff’s own production can make one, on leaving the theatre, feel one is seeing through London to a number of other cities shimmering in its ether.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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