Nicholas Hytner has not made it easy to write an insightful review of a play that has very few insights. Its promising premise – fleshed out by Lucinda Coxon, based on Harriet Lane’s debut novel of the same name – has an arc that never really takes off. Since so much of it is set at the arts desk of a Sunday broadsheet, newspaper critics who enjoy seeing their avatars on stage will be reluctant to pan it entirely. But from its tedious archetypes to its tired satire, Alys, Always makes for wasted opportunities across multiple fronts.
It follows Frances (Joanna Froggatt), an arts sub-editor at an Observer-esque paper called the Questioner, who witnesses a car crash involving a middle-aged lone driver named Alys Kyte. She accompanies Alys through her final moments, is warmly thanked by Alys’s husband and daughter, and returns to her job in compos mentis – only to discover that Alys’s husband is the celebrated Laurence Kyte (Robert Glenister), whose new book needs reviewing. Cue Frances’s increasing entanglement with the Kyte family, her seduction by the world of the wealthy, and a loss of innocence that sees her latent thirst for power aroused and then quenched.
At one point, Frances skewers the tedium of Kyte’s fiction – stories about “middle-aged, middle-class men who struggle with the decline in their physical powers, a decline that mirrors the state of the culture around them”. But the trope of the plucky female upstart who rises to become the power behind the throne is no less cliché. In fact, it’s centuries old, and needs a mixture of inner psychological tension, more memorable dialogue and a hint of something wider at stake – or anything at stake, really – to be worth a 21st-century audience’s time.
Kyte is an evocative surname for the powerful central family: a sharp syllable with biting consonants, it sounds like a bird of prey. But the Kytes themselves are far less incisive. Laurence is the ageing philanderer increasingly in thrall to his new muse, but for such a supposedly talented writer he’s hardly a joy to listen to. Perhaps the very fact that such a bore can attract so many women is a comment on the lure of fame, but what a trite comment this is. His daughter Polly is worse, her every line seemingly targeted to raise a chuckle of recognition from Islington mummies and daddies. To everyone else, her dialogue is tin-eared and not even convincingly acted. (In an unintentional layer of irony, Polly is currently at drama school.) It’s RADA graduate Leah Gayer’s professional debut, and unfortunately, it shows.
Teddy (Sam Woolf), Laurence’s son, is the play’s most interesting character, and the one who instinctively resents Frances’s steady encroachment; sadly, save for one emotional moment of pain and a few sulky “Oh, for fuck’s sake”s, he is largely neglected by Coxon’s script. Books editor Mary (Sylvestra Le Touzel), the doyenne of the arts desk, is the most fun to watch, but her jocular complaints about hot-desking and social media “traction” feel like calculated crowd-pleasers rather than organic wit.
Themes crying out to be explored are simply touched on and abandoned. The fact that Frances fabricates Alys’s last words when relaying the death to the Kyte family – a fact unearthed by Teddy – raises interesting questions about truth as a categorical imperative and the usefulness of fictions, but it goes nowhere. That the play isn’t really saying much is emphasised by the short essays in the accompanying programme. Rhiannon Lucy Coslett’s reproduced New Statesman article about gentrification and fellow Statesman scribe Helen Lewis’s critique of the demographic make-up of broadsheet journalism make for interesting and important reading, but feel entirely orthogonal to the play’s content.
Jon Clark’s lighting is fine, and Bob Crowley’s stage design, which takes in numerous settings – a dark country road at night, a newspaper arts desk, a north London flat, the grounds of a rich family’s estate – allows for impeccably handled scene changes. But the video screen that backgrounds the action, so we know when we’re outside or inside or in daytime or nighttime, is so often static and uninspired. Some more on-screen movement, and perhaps a choice of images that didn’t look like they’d just been downloaded from Flickr, would enliven the script’s deflated scenarios.
“Mum said she couldn’t understand herself in a place that doesn’t have any seasons,” says Polly at one point. This unwittingly describes the play rather well. Alys, Always is a muted experiment for Hytner, whose more recent productions – Julius Caesar, Allelujah!, Young Marx – have been characterised by narrative panache and dynamic staging. These qualities will likely be more present in Hytner’s upcoming A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Alys, Always, rather than being a spirited study in stealth, is a machine with no ghost.
Alys, Always is on at Bridge Theatre until 30th March. More info and tickets here.