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When the Night Begins

Teletext 12th March 2004

This is the best play this theatre has had all year. Which is not saying much.

Hanif Kureishi, while a very experienced playwright, is best known for his screenplays, most notable ‘My Beautiful Launderette’. But back in the 70s and 80s, he was writer-in-residence at the Royal Court Theatre when two-character pot-boilers were the latest thing.

So while well-made and carefully crafted across its 80 no-interval minutes, this is actually an old-fashioned play about two ordinary people with a secret that will, inevitably lead to violence.

It starts with a middle-aged man and a young woman talking in a shabby flat. Jane is nervous, furious, unable to come to the point. She wants something of Cecil but we don’t know what.

Despite the social differences – he is defiantly working class, a retired bus driver. She sounds upper middle-class and is elegantly, expensively dressed – they clearly share a past.

Jane was his step-daughter, it turns out, but they have not seen each other in many years. In the interim she has married a famous film director, had a daughter, and been left a widow.

She considers herself to have been so damaged by their relationship that she has come to kill him. Once this is established, the rest of the play is the unfolding of their stories, shared and separate.

Catherine McCormack, who was terrific in the National Theatre’s recent ‘All My Sons’, here takes on the unhappy Jane with an intensity and banked fury that is truly scary.

Michael Pennington, that fine actor, is here cast against type, far from the elegant classicist we know.

But neither the acting, or production are the problem here. The problem is I didn’t believe Kureishi’s situation. I didn’t believe that this man and woman would have found themselves in this flat, having this conversation.

And that problem is too big to solve.

Evening Standard, 12th March 2004, Nicholas de Jongh

‘When the Night Begins’ is my idea of a theatrical nightmare. You sit trapped in the auditorium for 90 minutes without an interval. You are required to watch two highly talented actors, Catherine McCormack and Michael Pennington, valiantly and vainly trying to breathe a little life into a psychological thriller by Hanif Kureishi that has no more dramatic vitality than a beached whale and never thrills. When the handsome McCormack, as the rich, emotionally disturbed young widow Jane, draws a huge knife from her handbag and holds it inches away from Michael Pennington, who plays a retired bus driver unbelievably called Cecil, the tension rises just a couple of degrees on the theatrical barometer to lukewarm.

Kureishi, famous for his novel ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ and his films ‘My Beautiful Launderette’ and ‘The Mother’, is an uneven playwright, whose last play, ‘Sleep With Me’, was abused by almost every critic apart from me. On this occasion, though, his work leaves me cold. ‘When the Night Begins’ sporadically attempts to grapple with the enduring psychological problems caused by sexual abuse of the adolescent. The play simply allows two small, narrow streams of consciousness to flow with sluggish, slow abandon across the stage and back again – and again. These two streams, representing the abuser and the abused, never really meet or connect. There is no serious conflict or engagement between Jane and Cecil, who long ago became her substitute father, her sexual abuser and her hippy mother’s lover.

The past does, of course, rear its ugly, damaged head but only just an inch or so. The scene is Cecil’s Streatham council flat into which McCormack’s compelling Jane, who shimmers with nerves, suppressed rage and vulnerability, arrives with murder ostensibly in mind and that knife at the ready. There is, though, the faint, persisting impression that the emotional ties between the abuser and the abused have never quite been broken. Before anything violent is contemplated Jane treats us to a lengthy voyage down her memory lane, while Cecil acts as her helpful stooge. “Brilliant man. Lived a fulfilled life,” he says of her now dead husband, the famous film director. “What was he, 18 years older than you? Remind me how you got to know him… What did Bernard leave you?”

This artificial method of providing us with boring, mainly irrelevant information is the play’s governing characteristic. The fashion in which both Jane and Cecil tell stories about their lives serves to prevent the clash and clamour of recrimination. Jane, all baleful in funereal black, keeps reminiscing about herself in the self-absorbed style of the practising narcissist. Since she is a successful artist, has been reunited with her mother and begun a new relationship, the influence that her life has been ruined by Cecil’s exploitative sexual abuse rings untrue. There is, though, insufficient evidence for us to judge.

Kureishi’s dialogue veers between the odd, affected and pseudo-poetic. Both the versatile actors, in Anthony Clark’s sensitive production, deftly bear the heavy burden of Kureishi’s style and an unresolved, plot-lite narrative. Michael Pennington, at his most impressive, lends Cecil an interesting air of guile, evasiveness and self-confidence, thereby effortlessly seizing the upper hand from the unhappy Jane. But not even such committed acting can life-save an ever-sinking play.

The Guardian, 12th March 2004, Michael Billington

I wish this struggling new theatre well, but its capacity to discover mediocre plays by good writers continues with this manipulative thriller by Hanif Kureishi that touches on serious issues while titillating us with the prospect of sex and violence.

Kureishi presents us with an odd, seemingly disparate couple: rough working-class Cecil, and edgy, well-groomed Jane. As he welcomes her into his Streatham flat, we learn that he is a communist and former bus driver. She is the rich widow of a famous film director.

But the real connection is that Jane is Cecil’s stepdaughter and has come to avenge herself for the sexual abuse she suffered as a teenager. What follows is an 80-minute cat and mouse game in which she threatens her stepfather with a knife while he tries to examine the reality of their relationship.

Clearly, Kureishi is suggesting that memory is highly subjective. Jane recalls only cruelty and exploitation, while Cecil implies that the sex was consensual and that the relationship enriching.

But, instead of exploring conflicting recollections, Kureishi resorts to the melodramatic techniques of a 1980s American play entitled ‘Extremities’, in which a rape victim turned the tables on her attacker. We are kept on edge, not by the argument but by the question of whether Cecil will get hold of the knife or Jane will succumb to his sexual blandishments.

In the process, Kureishi plays fast and loose with probability. Why, for instance, did Cecil’s wife so stoically accept the news of his liaison with her daughter?

There is also a good deal of confusion as to whether it is better to exorcise or exercise one’s memories. At one point Cecil tells his stepdaughter “there’s no future in the past”, and at another that “the past is your capital”, which seems a strange sentiment coming from a Marxist bus driver.

The result is an evening of unproductive tension in which two excellent actors, in Anthony Clark’s production, prowl warily around each other. Cast against type as the brawny prowl, Michael Pennington convinces you that Cecil is both the victim of romantic fixation and capable of physical cruelty.

Catherine McCormack also combines a righteous desire for retribution with a febrile emotional instability. However, the play works pruriently on our base appetites without offering anything in the way of psychological illumination.

What’s on Stage, 12th March 2004, Teri Paddock

Writer Hanif Kureishi found early success with amusingly poignant and politicised rites-of-passage tales – such as ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ and ‘My Beautiful Launderette’ – which were at the dramatic vanguard of portraying the modern Anglo-Asian experience.

In more recent years, Kureishi has fallen from favour as his work has taken a more apparently self-indulgent turn. The backlash upon publication of his auto-biographical novella ‘Intimacy’, in which he clinically detailed his plans to abandon his wife and two children, was savage. Soon after, that was nearly matched by the critical opprobrium heaped on his first play in 15 years, 1999’s ‘Sleep With Me’, which covered similar ground.

Five years on, Kureishi is back at Hampstead Theatre for the first time since 1983’s ‘Birds of Passage’ with another play which, while thankfully there’s no philandering writer in the lead, remains focused on the infidelities and betrayals hidden in urban households.

Thirty-something Jane (a sleek Catherine McCormack), whose much older big-wig film director husband (oops, there’s the glitterati link) has recently died, has come back to the south London high-rise – mildewed walls, curling wallpaper, dusty blinds and garish carpet designed by Patrick Connellan – of her childhood to confront her would-be stepfather, now in his late sixties. Years of therapy have failed to alleviate the pain of sexual abuse at the hands of Cecil (a chirpy but changeable Michael Pennington) so she’s devised a more radical solution to cut the memory of him out of her life.

‘When the Night Begins’ is billed as a psychological thriller in which the lines between victim and aggressor are blurred, but in Anthony Clark’s premiere production, the tension never ratchets up quite enough for real thrills. There’s come waving of a butcher’s knife and a blade, a few tussles, and a strange moment when Pennington’s Cecil perches on a chair, but as torture and torment goes, it’s all pretty tame stuff.

However, something interesting is happening – or at least, has happened – between these two. With their differing versions of the past and their wary dance of repulsion and attraction, you are left questioning just who has wronged who worse. It’s clearly a complicated relationship and yet, again, unsatisfyingly so, because one of the most interesting complicating factors – Esther, Jane’s mother and Cecil’s long-term lover, now dying of cancer – is never thrown fully into the mix.

Both talk about her a lot – how much did she know? where does her love and loyalty lie? how did her bohemian lifestyle impact their lives? – but, though she’s at the door and on the phone, always close, she never appears. More’s the pity. I can’t help but think how much more effective this slight two-hander might have worked as a three-hander, with meatier confrontation, subtler revelations and greater dramatic tension all round.   

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