Writer Hanif Kureishi found early career success with amusingly poignant and politicised rites-of-passage tales – such as The Buddha of Suburbia and My Beautiful Laundrette - which were at the dramatic vanguard of portraying the modern Anglo-Asian experience.
In more recent years, Kureishi has fallen from favour as his work has taken a more apparently self-indulgent turn. The backlash upon publication of his auto-biographical novella Intimacy, in which he clinically detailed his plans to abandon his wife and two children, was savage. Soon after, that was nearly matched by the critical opprobrium heaped on his first play in 15 years, 1999’s Sleep with Me, which covered similar ground.
Five years on, Kureishi is back at Hampstead Theatre for the first time since 1983’s Birds of Passage with another play which, while thankfully there’s no philandering writer in the lead, remains focused on the infidelities and betrayals hidden in urban households.
Thirty-something Jane (a sleek Catherine McCormack), whose much older big-wig film director husband (oops, there’s the glitterati link) has recently died, has come back to the south London high-rise - mildewed walls, curling wallpaper, dusty blinds and garish carpet designed by Patrick Connellan - of her childhood to confront her would-be stepfather, now in his late sixties. Years of therapy have failed to alleviate the pain of sexual abuse at the hands of Cecil (a chirpy but changeable Michael Pennington) so she’s devised a more radical solution to cut the memory of him out of her life.
When the Night Begins is billed as a psychological thriller in which the lines between victim and aggressor are blurred, but in Anthony Clark’s premiere production, the tension never ratchets up quite enough for real thrills. There’s some waving of a butcher’s knife and a blade, a few tussles, and a strange moment when Pennington’s shirtless Cecil perches on a chair, but as torture and torment goes, it’s all pretty tame stuff.
However, something interesting is happening – or at least, has happened – between these two. With their differing versions of the past and their wary dance of repulsion and attraction, you are left questioning just who has wronged who worse. It’s clearly a complicated relationship and yet, again, unsatisfyingly so, because one of the most interesting complicating factors – Esther, Jane’s mother and Cecil’s long-term lover, now dying of cancer – is never thrown fully into the mix.
Both talk about her a lot – how much did she know? where does her love and loyalty lie? how did her bohemian lifestyle impact their lives? – but, though she’s at the door and on the phone, always close, she never appears. More’s the pity. I can’t help but think how much more effective this slight two-hander might have worked as a three-hander, with meatier confrontations, subtler revelations and greater dramatic tension all round.
- Terri Paddock