Not so much a thriller as a diagrammatic puzzle, Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues is an engaging, challenging play that falls at the last fence because the language is not as witty, strange or poetic as the narrative outline. In the end, you feel, so what?
Two married couples are simultaneously apart on the brink of adultery in a hotel bedroom with each other’s other half. One of the men, Leon, is a policeman who, in the second act, investigates the disappearance of a psychiatrist whose shoe was found in a bush in the first act.
John Simm, making another impressive West End appearance following his performance in Elling two years ago, plays the cop with a dry, detached precision, while Toby Frow’s gloomy-in-a-good-way production also boasts fine technical contributions from Lucy Cohu, Kerry Fox and, as Simm’s more jug-eared doppelganger, almost, Ian Hart.
These four play all nine characters in a set of variations on a theme of lust and betrayal played out in a grey design by Ben Stones that creates a suffocating atmosphere in the bar and bedroom before sliding open more mysteriously to reveal a photographically represented tangled woodland and the looming arrival of a significant motor car.
It’s riveting without being very exciting, something I felt about Bovell’s climate change epic at the Almeida earlier this year, When the Rain Stops Falling. He’s a clever architect, a maestro of dramatic scheming.
This 1996 play, although seen at Hampstead in 2000, is best known for its movie version, Lantana, starring Antony LaPaglia as the cop, Barbara Hershey as the psychiatrist and Geoffrey Rush as her husband, and there’s much more sense in the film of the suburban setting and claustrophobia in the build-up and close-ups.
But the stage version lays out the narrative bones, and the structure, more clearly and thrives on the sharp leaps and kick-backs in the acting, which are well-controlled throughout and cleverly illuminated in Johanna Town’s great lighting and Lorna Heavey’s video and projection sequences. It makes for a decent, intelligent night out, but it doesn’t smell like a hit.