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Review Round-up: Haddon Polarises Opinion

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Polar Bears, the playwriting debut of bestselling author Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), opened at the Donmar Warehouse last night (6 April, previews from 1 April) where it continues until 22 May 2010.

Directed by Jamie Lloyd, the play depicts the struggles of John (Richard Coyle) to love, support and live with Kay (Jodhi May), a bi-polar sufferer. When the moon is in the right phase, she is magnetic and amazingly alive. But when the darkness closes in, she is lost to another world, a world in which John does not belong.

Whereas “Jamie Lloyd’s clever and outstandingly well acted production” was roundly praised, critical opinion was polarised regarding the success of Haddon’s narrative structure. Whilst some felt that its “out-of-chronological sequence” game-playing was “tricksy” and “irritatingly arty”, others praised the “back-and-forth jumps and juxtaposition” as “useful for a play that, like the heroine, is in two minds about what actually happens”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Disturbing, intense, bizarre … Despite being a sort of case history, which could have been dull, it’s also theatrically spellbinding … The play jumps around in Jamie Lloyd’s clever and outstandingly well acted production, and it doesn’t aim for total narrative coherence. But nothing seems left out, or mysterious, by the end … In Jodhi May’s extraordinary performance, which is both impetuous and determined, brimming with spirit and joy, Kay comes across as a writer who can’t cope but who is also completely normal. Is she bipolar, manic or depressive? Probably a bit of all three, nothing too unusual … The rare ability to get inside someone completely else’s head was apparent in Haddon’s brilliant novel … He shows here that his writing talent has a theatrical dimension, too”
  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (three stars) – “Jamie Lloyd's vigorous, sometimes serio-joky, sometimes bruised and poetic production … Haddon proves that he can create comic dialogue that sometimes has an Alan Bennett ring; he can shape scenes so that they spring surprises; he can tell a story out-of-chronological-sequence … the play is at its best when it dramatises the terrible burden borne by people who love and care for bipolar sufferers … The problem, though, is that Haddon's play deals in faintly lurid extremities when the real dramatic interest in the condition lies, to my mind, in the greyer areas … Kay – played by Ms May with a keen feel for her excitability and hectic allure … Kay's ups and downs don't seem mutually defining … Instead, the highs are presented as a kind of possession, a take-over of the real Kay (whatever that is) by an irresponsible child.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Haddon's premise is fascinating: the difficulty of coping, on a domestic level, with mental illness … He captures very well the unpredictable nature of the central relationship: the highs are genuinely high, as when the couple engage in rhapsodic post-coital reminiscence, and the lows are terrifyingly low. What emerges strongly is Kay's periodic unreachability and the way she sees her bid for independence, as a children's author and illustrator, threatened by John's protective love: his very kindness, in a bitter irony, becomes a trigger for her depression … Haddon dramatises, with great confidence, a particular instance. His play falls apart only when it seeks to draw general conclusions … Grateful as I am for a play that is prepared to raise big issues, I feel that 90 minutes is a short time … Haddon is fortunate, however, in his interpreters. Jamie Lloyd stages the piece with exemplary clarity … Jodhi May also pulls off the difficult feat of suggesting Kay's rich potential for life as well as her hideous retreat into darkness … Richard Coyle manages to make John's tenacious decency dramatically compelling ... I emerged feeling that Haddon had hit on a very good idea for a play. But he tries to run an Olympic marathon before he has fully learned to walk.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Telegraph (two stars) – “Polar Bears seems to offer little more than facile despair and tricksy dramatic technique … Haddon keeps playing games … But the effect is curiously alienating, creating the suspicion that the dramatist is cruelly toying with both his characters and those sitting in the audience … Nevertheless the play undoubtedly makes some powerful points about mental illness … Jamie Lloyd’s production, staged on an atmospherically creepy set by Soutra Gilmour that conjures up some devastated mental institution, is undoubtedly powerfully acted. As Kay, Jodhi May ranges between exhilaration and despair with harrowing conviction and intensity … Richard Coyle succeeds in the hard task of making goodness interesting as her devoted partner; and there is strong support from Celia Imrie as Kay’s long-suffering mother and Paul Hilton as her apparently ruthless brother. Nevertheless I find it impossible warmly to recommend a play that is at once irritatingly arty and terminally depressing.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Kay is poignantly realised by Jodhi May, an actor whose wonderfully expressive face and tonal range make her ideal as this mercurial character. May's nuanced performance is matched by an articulate one from Richard Coyle as her boyfriend John … Coyle switches from effortful joviality to tender concern, and May, described as the kite he's holding on to, flits from eloquent mania via cool resolve to snarling wretchedness. There's scrupulous work, too, from Paul Hilton as Kay's abrasive brother Sandy, and as their mother Celia Imrie manifests an ironclad severity. Jamie Lloyd's production strains for intensity … Whilst Haddon's writing has both darkness and zest, it often seems exaggeratedly rhetorical. There's humour and shrewd observation, but the narrative jumps around abruptly, and its philosophical allusions are clever rather than potent. Elements of the production don't work. The echoey amplification of some passages seems pretentious. The music is overblown. And at times the text feels like a commentary on its own gestures, uncomfortably self-conscious. Most perplexing, though, is David Leon as a grungy Jesus … His jarring presence is the mark of a play that teems with ideas yet lacks clarity.”
  • - by Jude Offord


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