Weird and slightly creepy, Stephen Poliakoff’s new play, his first in the theatre for 12 years, paints a dark night of the soul in the recesses of London, full of stories and secrets, ghosts and desires.
Richard, an unsettled young market researcher, finds his old primary school teacher, Miss Lambert, asleep on a bench on the Embankment in the shadow of St Paul’s. She remembers exactly who he is, one of her most difficult, dyslexic and imaginative pupils.
He then links up with his school contemporary Julie, and we’re off on an odyssey of remembrance and reconstruction, with flash backs to school assemblies and revelations not just of Miss Lambert, but also of her colleagues, the gloriously named Minken (David Troughton) and Summers (Sorcha Cusack).
Poliakoff directs his own play, which is so distinctive and heartfelt that you (or at least I) can happily live with the enigmatic discursiveness of it all. And it’s great to see Tracey Ullman on stage once again as Lambert, a woman for whom life holds no more fears.
She maintains an absolute calm exterior as she talks of her expeditions along railway tracks and through the subterranean consciousness of her teaching life. There’s one horrific story in particular that explains her philosophical sedation. And it’s this that gives the play its flavour and charge: the idea that good teaching is some kind of intuitive, imaginative cooperation between the teacher and pupil.
Revisiting this residual memory, Richard and Julie – beguiling Tom Riley as the first, hilarious Sian Brooke as the second – submit to a guided tour of what is usually, for children at least, the private lives of teachers.
Minken, whom Troughton plays as if bursting with uncontrollable energy, delves deep into his Jewish family history, having delivered an extraordinary speech on his sense of alienation in the city, prompted by opening a suitcase of toys and teddy bears.
The relationship between Lambert and Richard moves from a spirit of enquiry to one of reciprocal wisdom. And Poliakoff conjures an inner city world of rooftop bars, cellar clubs, night time and tragic interiors with an expressive language of theatrical poetry, superbly realised in the designs of Lez Brotherston, the sound of Ben and Max Ringham and, especially, the lighting of Oliver Fenwick.