by David Hare
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Designed by Bob Crowley
Wynham’s Theatre, London
Saturday 26th July 2014, matinee 14.30
Bill Nighy as Tom Sergeant
Carey Mulligan as Kyra Hollis
Matthew Beard as Edward Sergeant
David Hare’s play was at Wyndam’s Theatre 18 years ago in 1996, also starring Bill Nighy. He was replacing Michael Gambon at the National in 1995, where it got an Olivier Award for Best New Play.
The set is the best interpretation of a “kitchen sink” I have seen. Because it is, basically, a kitchen sink drama. Grotty flat. Two people arguing about their relationship, including class issues, for two hours. The flat has a door and an imaginary wall to its balcony walkway entrance. Opposite we can see the realistic next block as rows of windows and walkways, which light up or darken as we move from evening, to middle of the night to morning. The flat has three rooms, with a wall that slides on and off, so most of the time, we have an imaginary wall between the living room / kitchen and the bedroom and bathroom, but it can slide on and shut these areas off. For example, when Kyra goes off to have a bath. To switch to my English Language teaching hat, many English teaching articles protest that a popular sentence for teaching the past continuous and past simple is never actually said. “She was having a bath when the doorbell rang.” Ah! In Skylight, she was having a bath when the doorbell rang.
Tom Sergeant is a wealthy restaurant owner. His wife has been dead for a year, and he decides to look up his ex-girlfriend, Kyra, now a teacher in East Ham. Their affair had started when she had a job at his restaurant. She moved in with his family and lived with them for six years, then, when his wife discovered the affair, Kyra left immediately and never contacted them again. This was three years earlier. Tom’s eighteen year old son, Edward, who visits just before him, thinks of Kyra as a sister. It sets up a two hour argument on gender, society, politics the lot. It’s subtle stuff, worthy of hours of discussion … we did two and a half hours driving home afterwards.
Reviews pick out the Thatcherite politics of 1995 when it was first performed, but that’s only at a surface level. Gender Politics and Generational Politics are the centre of the play. There’s the entrepreneurial life-view versus the caring-professions life-view, but I couldn’t see it as crudely “Labour v Conservative.”
The generation difference works differently to the 1995/1996 productions, simply because Nighy is now 64, rather than the 46 of last time around. OK, he could pass for several years younger, but not 46. However, Michael Gambon played the original run at age 55, and Nighy could pass for that. It’s quite important to interpretation, because we know Kyra’s age. She started work as a waitress in his restaurant at eighteen, then became the manager after just two hours. Then she went to university, then lived with them for six years and left three years ago. I make that thirty (or just a year older than Carey Mulligan). There’s discussion of her wealthy lawyer father, and her motivation with a 16 year age gap looks different than with a 34 year age gap. And that effects the difference in their world views: half a generation? Or a generation?
David Hare shares out the good lines in arguments too and shifts our sympathies. At the start, Carey Mulligan seems gloriously grounded, a strong female, while both Edward and Tom are nervous males, prowling around, twitching, moving stuff.
Matthew Beard as the son, Edward, shines among such august and famous acting company. He is tall and thin, like Nighy, and uses similar mannerisms. I swear the first time he mentions his father he does a perfect trademark Nighy twitch. They look related.
The ground is constantly shifting, as Tom and Kyra discuss Alice (Tom’s wife) and her long death from cancer –which started right after she discovered they had been conducting an affair behind her back all this time. At the end, Kyra’s final rejection is because she thinks Tom deliberately allowed Alice to discover the affair, so as to precipitate a crisis so he could go off with Kyra. We don’t know if it was deliberate, a subliminal act, or accidental. But then Kyra just left. She’d babysat the kids, been like a big sister to them. She had been Alice’s closest friend. She didn’t explain or apologize, she just disappeared.
On the political divide (which is just as much gender and generation as Daily Mail reader v Guardian reader), they both make strong points. Kyra defends social workers and teachers against the constant press derision, and the sneers from the entrepreneurial. But Tom asks why she chooses to live in such a flat in such a tower block. Is it deliberate self-flagellation? She defends the kids in her East Ham school as real people, but then lets slip that the head teacher left because the kids stole her car, burgled her flat and baked her cat in the oven. Tom makes points about not only working in an insalubrious area of London, but then choosing to commute right across the city to an equally unpleasant environment. It reminded me of arguments in the staff room in the 1970s. I remember three strong socialists who lived in town centre terraced or semi-detached late Victorian houses, pouring disdain on two colleagues who lived in larger newish houses with leafy gardens in the satellite suburbs (probably worth about the same). “Real” people lived in “working class” areas in the town centre. All three came from wealthier backgrounds than me, and two had been to public schools. I suspect David Hare had heard similar discussions.
Also, while Kyra is idealistic, she refuses to have a television or read the newspapers. There’s a 1995 touch there. In 2014, a lot of people avoid TV and newspapers in favour of surfing the net (not watching films or TV either online either). The 1995 setting just about avoids that.
The acting, as expected, is of the highest standard. We had always wanted to see Bill Nighy. Especially after seeing the David Hare scripted television trilogy Page Eight / Turks & Caicos / Salting The Battlefield, all centred on Bill Nighy. Wild Target is a light film, but one I love. Then Carey Mulligan was in The Great Gatsby and Inside Lleweyn Davis last year, as well as starring in BBC costume dramas. They work brilliantly together. Nighy’s Tom demonstrates his OCD from beginning to end, straightening the school exercise books on the table compulsively, pushing the grubby chair in and out with his foot, agonizing on squaring up a towel as he folds it. Mulligan’s Kyra has to spend nearly all of Act One really preparing and cooking a Bolognese dinner while acting. Both have rare charisma. The cooking allows Nighy to demonstrate his control freak aspect over the chilli and parmesan.
All the way through, Tom reveals that he thinks love is about gifts, giving things … he wooed Alice with daily bunches of red roses, and cannot understand they were rejected when she was dying. He feels justified because he built Alice a beautiful room to die in (with the skylight of the title). He arrives with a bottle of whisky, and offers to send his chauffeur to get fresh parmesan. This attitude to gifts is echoed at the ending, when Edward arrives with the gift of breakfast from the Ritz Hotel. I didn’t quite get the ending. On a minor touch, as this fastidious restaurant owner, would he have selected what looks like standard blended whisky? Surely a malt on a fancy box. It’s sad when he leaves with the remaining half bottle.
There is an irony in the whole thing as an exploration of class divides in England. It is one of the most expensive theatre tickets in the West End for a cast of three. A good £10 each more than Shakespeare in Love (LINKED) with a cast of twenty-eight plus live music, and those were better seats too. Or nearly twice the price of excellent seats at The Globe, also with a cast ten times the size. A cast of three with two major stars and highly-priced tickets is very much “American theatre” not British. But indeed, we wanted to see Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan that much. And it was worth it. But simply put, the audience were not from the tower block of the setting. They may have been murmurs of agreement as Kyra defended the caring professions, but face it, the ticket prices are “champagne socialist.”
Like most other reviews of Skylight, yes, it’s a five star production. I’m quite surprised in that it is much less “theatrical” than recent productions I’ve rated that highly. I don’t normally go for two people discussing their relationship for two hours, but then it’s never this well-written or well-acted.