“A great artist is always before his time or behind it.”

Some have been swift to suggest that Stephen Poliakoff is (somewhat) resting on his laurels. What with the critical successes of his past work including the well-loved The Lost Prince and the not-so well-received (profit-wise) feature film Glorious 39, he has established himself as a writer/director who, having not returned to the stage in over 12 years, does not need to explore new possibilities. Indeed, even I have seen the lack of innovation in his works – the recurring themes of the Holocaust, World War II, lost memories (Gideon’s Palace) and the importance of time and friendship (Friends & Crocodiles). Didn’t I say I was a Poliakoff fan? I am perhaps the worst critic for My City as I both admire and aspire to emulate Poliakoff.

In My City Richard (Tom Riley, who I predict will move onto bigger and brighter things after this) discovers his primary school headmistress (Tracey Ullman) on a bench reminding me somewhat (told you this might become tiresome) of Maggie Smith in Capturing Mary. Nevertheless, he explores the humorous, dark and complex relationship between teachers and their students and the power of storytelling, the idea that what defines us is in fact what we have left behind. We are transported over an evening with Richard, his dyslexic schoolmate (Sian Brooke), their headmistress and two teachers ranging from a shopping mall’s top floor cafe to a basement bar and a late night greasy spoon.  A very original device used by Poliakoff in exploring the past is when Mr. Minken (David Troughton) admits to collecting his pupils’ past art work. Unrolling them to reveal our history (9/11, the death of Diana etc) these paintings (which reminded me of being asked to paint the “times we live in”) brought to light a new idea of how one captures history through innocence – the idea we are victims of our own memories. Very poignant indeed.

What lets this production down is, of course, the repetition of such ideas. We are not given an insight into why Richard’s marriage broke down (or did it? we can never be sure), there is no real reason why the headmistress “roams the streets at night” and when she repeatedly reminds us “she is not a vampire” I could hear a few disappointed sighs in the audience. Like most of Poliakoff’s work everything is a double entendre and nothing is as it seems. Children are used and discarded (so to speak), the sinister world of London’s underground is only partly explored through ghost stories, and the inclusion of “Edgar Allen Poe livin’ round the corner” (or something like that) is what makes this play only accessible to a certain demographic. It seemed to me that the text itself was not yet refined enough to really explore a more remarkably new theme.  I loved that Poliakoff celebrated London as a city. I could see his route inside my head as he explored the murders on the strand, the routes beneath the city from Lancaster Gate and Chancery Lane, the suicide bridge on the Archway Road. It made me love the city I live in. And just for that, it is a most definitely wonderful achievement.

My City is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 5th November.