BILL NIGHY BACK ONSTAGE: MORE THAN WELCOME
Few actors are more instantly recognizable than Bill Nighy, yet his gift is to deploy in faithful service of each distinct part his idiosyncratic, louche grace, his shrugs and closed-lips, headshaking laughs, his light-footed prowling Afghan-hound grace and general air of hangdog mischief. To see this elegant oddness back onstage, after all those films and television dramas, is a considerable treat. To see him opposite Carey Mulligan doubles the pleasure: there is a real rapport there, all the more skilful because of the painful status which David Hare’s play gives to their relationship.
For Nighy (who did this part first in 1997) plays Tom, a middle-aged successful restaurateur – a sort of Conran – who had a six-year affair with the young, rather earnest Kyra. She became a close family friend, mentor to their son and companion of his wife. It felt, she remembers, almost right: loving. When the wife found out, though, Kyra left. Two years later she is an earnest, devoted teacher in a hard school in East Ham, and lives in an awful tower-block flat off the North Circular. She gets on a six a.m. bus to commute to work and do extra coaching, and listens entranced to the ordinary struggling people on the top deck whose lives, she sees, are more heroic than any business chief’s. She speaks with passion of the mission of schools to provide both “a haven and a challenge” and demand more of disadvantaged children. Very topical, even Goveite.
Into her flat – realized in brilliantly depressing detail, bathroom and all, by Bob Crowley’s set – erupts her old lover’s son Edward , seeking her help because, since the wife died Tom has been depressed and unresponsive in their house in suburban Wimbledon (“a green fortress”) where he built the dying woman a room with the sloping glass wall of the title. Edwardfeels doubly abandoned: Matthew Beard (whose part exists only in first and final scenes) evokes a gangling, awkward gap-year boy who sets off the mentorish composure of Mulligan’s Kyra.
When he goes, Tom himself turns up, striding and swirling round the little flat in his elegant black overcoat, shuddering at its ordinariness (his wince at the geyser in the bathroom is great), criticizing her cooking as, onstage and live with fine aromas, she makes spaghetti sauce. When he discovers the dried-up cheese she proposes to grate, he falls into a gourmet sulk and tries to send his driver to buy fresh Parmesan. Kyra in return lectures him on the unreal bubble of prosperity he lives in and how it isn’t the real world. Which does, at times, feel like being beaten round the head with a copy of the Guardian.
But through all this clash of ideologies and wordy worthy social politicking, a real thread of pain and confusion is drawn tight by Nighy’s needy posturing and guilty desperate longing. Both of them are real people, suffering in the trap of their inability to accept one another’s worlds, atoning for that bygone deception of the dead wife.
I expected a bleak ending, and there seemed to be one. But startlingly, Hare ends on a note bordering on whimsy and definitely sentimental. Actually, too sentimental even for me, as director Stephen Daldry lets the dawn light rise at the end of the long night, with sounds of a waking city and children’s happy cries.
Box office 0844 482 5120 to 23 August.
Skylight will be broadcast live to more than 500 UK cinemas on 17 July 2014 as part of National Theatre Live.