The Bridge, the first commercial theatre of its size to be built in London for 80 years, has so far produced work of varying quality. First up was last year’s middling Young Marx, starring Rory Kinnear, followed by a full-blooded take on Julius Caesar. The theatre’s third play Nightfall, by relatively unknown playwright Barney Norris, received much less promotional fanfare than the previous two offerings. This might explain the incredibly sparse house this soon after opening. It sits somewhere between Young Marx and Julius Caesar in terms of quality, lacking the daring and excitement of the latter, yet helped along by a sensitive and complex central performance by Outnumbered’s Claire Skinner.
Nightfall is a rural play, part of a growing trend which has made the English countryside all the rage in theatre (The Ferryman, Gundog) and film (The Levelling, God’s Own Country and Dark River). The plot has become increasingly familiar: a young person (Sion Daniel Young’s Ryan) reluctantly takes over a failing farm, and is caught between the responsibility of maintaining a dying lifestyle and prioritising his own happiness. What makes Nightfall interesting is that it injects human drama, making the piece more than a tired polemic about the evils of urbanisation. The real conflict is not so much whether the farm survives as whether Jenny’s (Skinner) children fly the nest and lead independent lives as opposed to the one she worked hard for them to have with her. Throw in a family friend who has served time (Ukweli Roach) and wants to rekindle his romance with Jenny’s daughter Lou (Ophelia Lovibond) and sparks are set to fly.
The theatre has been reconfigured into a thrust stage and one of the most striking features of Nightfall is its set. Designed by Rae Smith (whose previous work includes War Horse and that unfortunate Kinnear Macbeth at the National), it’s rare to see a set on this scale which is so detailed. The landscape is deliberately unlovely: a large, rusty oil pipe dominates the stage and runs from the back wall into the first gallery. Yet there’s a definite atmosphere, enhanced by Gareth Williams’s cinematic music, and we get a real sense of the land Jenny is fighting for. Director Laurie Sansom uses the space well – the characters inhabit the land rather than being dwarfed by it.
Though the family are up to their ears in debt, this is far from the gruelling misery of the Royal Court’s Gundog. Jenny and her family lead a boho, middle class lifestyle, frequently indulging in wine, Fleetwood Mac and M&S cheese snacks at dusk. Though the land is grotty, there’s little back-breaking agricultural work on show. Ryan’s main gripe is more the fact that he’s still living with his mother and barely sees anyone his own age.
Skinner is magnificent as Jenny, a mother who pushes her children away in an attempt to hold them closer. She’s clearly the character that Norris is most interested in – he adorns her with moderate alcoholism and oddly conservative opinions. The playwright lavishes less care on Ryan, who veers perilously close to the country bumpkin stereotype. His lack of intelligence is repeatedly emphasised through half-remembered facts from school, and by the end of the play he’s left with little to do. Lovibond is better as his sister Lou, portraying her character’s emotional distress by constantly fidgeting about the stage and through frequent inarticulate outbursts. Roach is also good as Lou’s ex Pete, incorporating both sympathetic and malicious behaviour into a believable character.
Norris’s main achievement with Nightfall is making the play more about the people than the land. We’re not meant to mourn the loss of the agricultural lifestyle, but the way inheriting the farm hampers the characters’ attempts to be independent and happy. “This is bigger than him,” Jenny says of Ryan. “That’s bullshit,” Lou rebuts, “it’s his life.” Though Jenny’s behaviour is increasingly petty, it’s also very easy to feel her pain at the potential loss of her children and home. “This was all we had to give you,” she says. “We worked so hard. I’m sorry it wasn’t enough.”
Though not as showy or fresh as Nicholas Hytner’s take on Julius Caesar, Nightfall offers solid characterisation, well-written dialogue and conflicts we can empathise with. It’s unlikely to dent the Bridge’s reputation as an exciting new venue.
Nightfall is playing at the Bridge Theatre until 26 May
Photo: Manuel Harlan