Having seen few of the nine plays by Richard Nelson which the Royal Shakespeare Company has staged, I have yet to reach any firm conclusions regarding his powers and appeal as a writer. Goodnight Children Everywhere does not really advance the case one way or the other. Viewed from one angle, it is an impeccably sensitive examination of a reunited young-adult family riven by sibling tensions and still haunted by their deceased parents; from another, it is simply not particularly gripping or engaging as drama.
In 1945, seventeen-year-old Peter returns from his evacuation to Alberta, sporting a hybrid accent, a new version of his name, "Petey", and even at one point a jokey Stetson and pair of leather chaps. His slightly elder sisters still inhabit part of the family flat in Clapham; one of them, Ann, is married to fiftysomething doctor Mike, whilst eldest sister Betty works as his nurse and continues to harbour a not-so-secret Freudian crush on him. Ann finds her sisterly and maternal feelings for Peter complicated by his entry to man's estate and her own unsatisfactory marriage, and first masturbates him in a tin bath then ultimately entices him into bed; supposedly sexually awakened Vi, who at nineteen sleeps with a theatre director in order to land a role, explodes in puritanical and possibly jealous hysteria on discovering the incestuous liaison. The action is pervaded by the shades of their mother and father – pictures, clothes, memories, even a private code to denote when one or other of the children is thinking about them; Nelson's title is a grimly sardonic comment on the tangled mix of childhood and adulthood in which the central quartet are ensnared.
Director Ian Brown has created a marvellously intricate construction of looks, hesitations and nuances (a welcome reminder of his real skills after the farrago that was the London transfer of Irvine Welsh's You'll Have Had Your Hole), centred upon excellent performances by Cathryn Bradshaw and Simon Scardifield as Ann and Peter (although it is a slight pity that the supposedly seventeen-year-old Peter is noticeably thinning at the crown). What may seem the groundless assumptions of an American playwright regarding English life in 1945 turn out usually to be accurate (there really was, for instance, a shop in Clapham which sold dead crows as meat), and the mere setting of these events in an under-examined era lends an added interest to the proceedings.
And yet, and yet, and yet... Whilst the stiltedness of initial reunion, subsequent awkwardnesses of family life and growing air of insanity are played with perfect pitch, they somehow seem too precisely plausible to be dramatic; it may be paradoxically easier for an audience to digest such themes when writ large than when presented in a context almost of banality. Nelson has an eye and ear which verge on the magnificent, but perhaps the reason for my lack of settled opinion of him is that he lacks a distinctive voice in which to couch his material.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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