Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
Opened 22 July, 1996

Both at the Gate Theatre and now at the Royal Court, Stephen Daldry has revelled in creating his theatres' spaces anew. Now he has sanctioned the live-on-stage demolition of the Court in its last production before closure for extensive building work. Not only is The Lights staged on the three levels of the auditorium while the audience sits on the stage, but in one scene a couple of actors energetically tear away at the back wall with crowbars. Over a seven-week run they should probably remove most of the plasterwork.

There are eight million stories in the naked city, and The Lights is several of them. Howard Korder's play set in a New York which is never mentioned by name includes scenes from the penthouse to the pavement, from skyscraper tops and movie-première crowds to alleys inhabited by loan sharks and tenements raided by cowboy salvage crews. Korder shows a fine grasp of how to remake cinematic sensibility for the stage, not merely in terms of scene structure but in his neutrality of perspective. The everyday grinding down of shop assistant Lilian and her junkie boyfriend Fredric are observed with an unblinking eye; Korder's evident distaste for such a society does not prejudice his faithful representation of it.

Director Ian Rickson once more demonstrates his style-free style; he pushes no particular view or technique, but thoughtfully and sensitively serves the mood of whatever piece he works on. Jeremy Herbert's design makes excellent use of multi-level staging, allowing for rapid cutting between locations and occasionally simultaneous action in a couple of areas; elegant use is made of Stephen Warbeck's sparing, plangent music.

The play follows 24 hours in the lives of the central couple. On impulse, Lilian steals a cheap watch from the jewellery department of the store where she works; the possible repercussions of this move, and her subsequent break-up with Fredric, leave her in a ferment of unarticulated discontent through an evening in which she and her workmate Rose fall in with a vulgar, crooked construction boss and his accomplice in the city bureaucracy. The affinity she begins to feel for the latter man is violently swept away by his own selfish, amoral agenda. Meanwhile Fredric fails to get the pay-off due from his last menial job, is beaten up by the thug to whom he owes a few bucks and ends up working with the wrecking crew and disowned by Lilian.

Emily Mortimer copes well with the demands of constantly suggesting more than meets the eye, only lapsing once or twice into Chekhovian angst; Lee Ross's Fredric affects to loathe self-pity but is a mass of sordid needs. Deirdre Harrison as Rose and Colin Stinton as the corrupt builder Diamond have acquired the hard carapaces necessary for existence in a world such as this, but are no more appealing for it.

Korder's dispassionate documentation of soul-destroying modern urban life meshes well with the spatial games which are becoming one of the hallmarks of the Royal Court under Daldry. In both its literary and dramatic aspects, The Lights is a fitting final production for this phase of the Court's history.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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