Here’s a collector’s item: a short fifty-minute early play by Caryl Churchill, hardly seen since its premiere in the old Soho Poly near the BBC in 1980, and given with a first-rate quartet of actors for just ten performances.
Chronologically, the play comes between Top Girls and Cloud Nine, so we shouldn’t be surprised at the density and control of the writing; but I was surprised by its comic bleakness and almost Pinter-like savagery of expression. This is also the first time Churchill uses her trademark over-lapping dialogue.
The set - fitting snugly on a slope within the Phedre design - is a free-standing bedroom wall and a very large double bed. On this bed we see Margaret and Frank rowing bitterly after he’s come home drunk yet again; and then Pete and Dawn drifting apart while he drones on about Alien and she slits her wrists under the bedclothes.
Finally, Margaret and Pete are together but it’s not going brilliantly and the play ends almost in mid-sentence, shockingly unconcluded. This triptych of pain, loneliness, anger and confusion is not your average sort of pillow talk comedy, and it’s quite a jolt to the system.
The Lyttelton is too large for it, possibly, but a packed audience testifies to an appetite to see a rare Churchill play possibly before the no less demanding rigours of Phedre or All’s Well That Ends Well. And Gareth Machin, studio associate at the NT and formerly artistic director of the Southwark Playhouse, has directed it very well indeed.
The opening bout is ferociously played by Lindsey Coulson and Ian Hart, while Hattie Morahan and Paul Ready introduce more dream-like tonalities in their dislocated conversation. Coulson and Ready show that nothing is necessarily solved by changing partners, as the brutal detail of one horror movie, Alien, is replaced by that of an even more haunting one, Apocalypse Now. High time we saw many more of these Churchill “shorts”, I feel.