Review: Passionate production of Sarah Waters favourite at Warwick Arts Centre

A promotional image for The Night Watch
A promotional image for The Night Watch

Clive Peacock reviews The Night Watch at Warwick Arts Centre

“A person’s past is more interesting than his or her present”, suggests Sarah Waters in her 2006 novel, The Night Watch, which now features prominently in the best lesbian fiction lists. Considered to be a work by a truly brilliant and forceful storyteller, the work uses reverse chronology to tell the story of London blitz memories being revived in reverse narration, taking the reader from 1947 back to 1941.

Hattie Naylor’s adaptation of the novel sticks to the original theme using a small group of actors, who in turn have thoroughly researched their roles, to deliver a gripping, sometimes very revealing two-and-a-half-hour production.

During this time, the lives of three women and one young man connect in the most unexpected ways. Hattie’s own research discovered how strongly people felt about being unified during the war, with matters of sexual preference not seeming to be as important. This conflicts somewhat with Sarah Waters’ original story which reminds readers that homosexuality was illegal in 1940, abortion too, but lesbianism was legal!

There were brilliant set designs by David Woodhead, extraordinary sound effects by Max Pappenheim using the most modern technologies to enable Malcolm James’ (Mr Mundy/Mr Wilson) singing of The White Cliffs of Dover to be synchronised with the war-time recording by Vera Lynn.

Members of Original Theatre and co-producers at York Theatre Royal revive memories with many outstanding individual performances; Mara Allen (Mickey/Mrs Alexander), very much a newcomer to this tour, her first since graduating, makes an excellent debut. In her role she is much more concerned about the rules, unlike her 1941 blitz colleague, Kay (Phoebe Pryce), who shows deeply concerning passion to help a woman who has just aborted.

Both Lewis Mackinnon (Duncan) and Sam Jenkins-Shaw (Robert Fraser/Cole) engage in sexual relationships, are conscientious objectors and assist in a suicide, so it is no surprise to find them in prison in 1944 with Jenkins-Shaw inclined to masturbate on stage covered in a large blanket. Both researched their roles very thoroughly and gave strong performances.

Uncovered lost histories may well have been pushed into the background during those turbulent years.

* The Night Watch runs until Saturday October 26. Visit warwickartscentre.co.uk or call 024 7652 4524 to book.