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Review Round-up: Simm Twists Tongues & Minds

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Andrew Bovell's Speaking in Tongues - the source for the acclaimed 2001 film Lantana - opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre this week, marking a return to the London stage for Life on Mars star John Simm (See 1st Night Photos, 29 Sep 2009).

Co-starring Lucy Cohu, Ian Hart and Kerry Fox, the production, which is directed by Toby Frow, marks the West End debut for a play written nearly 15 years ago.

Speaking in Tongues centres on nine parallel lives - interlocked by four infidelities, one missing person and a mysterious stiletto - which are interwoven through a fragmented series of confessionals, interrogations and ‘split-screen’ scenes, all drawn together by the investigations of Simm's character, Leon Zat.

Overnight critics were more unanimous in their reactions than they were earlier in the year to the Almeida's mounting of Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling (See Review Round-up, 26 May 2009). However, for all the plaudits - “compelling”, “intelligent”, “sharp” - it was difficult to find an out-and-out rave among the broadsheet pages. Of the performances, all four cast members acquitted themselves well, successfully navigating a plot that the Guardian's Michael Billington described as a “theatrical spaghetti junction”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - "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? … 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 ... 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 … It makes for a decent, intelligent night out, but it doesn’t smell like a hit.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “Either the unnamed town in which Andrew Bovell sets this play is very small or there’s a strange erotic magnetism in its air … Four actors play nine characters, sometimes speak in unison, and appear in scenes that cut into each other and don’t always follow the laws of time. But Bovell’s dramatic knots aren’t Gordian tangles or even over-intricate sheepshanks from Scouting for Boys. Thanks to his sharp writing and Toby Frow’s adroit handling of an able cast, the job of unravelling the plot proves manageable, rewarding and purposeful … Lucy Cohu is both glamorous, confused Sonja and that outwardly authoritative, inwardly troubled shrink. And Ian Hart has three roles, most strikingly Neil, an obsessed nerd who has spent years haplessly pursuing the woman he loved and lost, Sarah.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - "While it mystifies and entertains, I felt irked by its lack of cultural specificity: it seems to be happening anywhere-in-general and nowhere-in-particular. The plot is a theatrical spaghetti junction … What Bovell is saying gradually becomes clear: Trust, whether between husband and wife, supposed lovers or therapist and patient, is dismayingly rare; and although we live in a world of hidden connections, we are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins … John Simm as an adulterous cop and Lucy Cohu as his fraught wife are particularly good at conveying the nervy irritation that comes when all passion is spent. Ian Hart as the therapist's guilt-ridden husband and Kerry Fox as her querulous patient also add to their air of accumulating tension."
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “The movie struck me as a slightly dodgy piece of Aussie film noir but the complex story works far better as a play. This is an absorbing work about trust and betrayal, love, desire and guilt - and you need to give it time, and full attention … I’m prepared to forgive the play its weaknesses because the plot is so compelling and the correspondences between the different characters played by the same actors become so intriguing … There are fine performances from all four actors. John Simm, so superb as the bewildered cop in the Life on Mars television series, once again plays a detective with bruised humanity and sharp wit, but he also gets to play a character who might be a murderer. Kerry Fox doubles as a gauche wife with self esteem problems and a strangely sinister woman seeking counselling for her relationship problems; Ian Hart unearths moments of unbearable pain in both his main roles while Lucy Cohu persuasively moves from seductive wife to terrified victim.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - "Andrew Bovell’s brittle drama of loneliness and betrayal calls to mind that hoary sporting cliché 'It’s a game of two halves'. For this is a play that could end at the interval … I would pay good money to watch any of Lucy Cohu, John Simm, Kerry Fox and Ian Hart on the stage. To see them all together might be regarded as a lavish treat, and of the four the nervily protean Hart and luminously engaging Cohu stand out here. Toby Frow’s production emphasises the cinematic qualities of Bovell’s play …  Yet as it fidgets towards its quixotically inconclusive ending, its smart pretentiousness calls to mind a David Lynch movie - enigmatic, disorientating and brutal, perhaps, but at the same time strangely tenuous."
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