Review: Neaptide, National Theatre

It’s not often that we see queer women’s stories on stage, rarer still that they feature a lesbian protagonist. That’s what was so exciting about Neaptide – it features not one but at least six queer women, over three generations.

The reading of Neaptide by Sarah Daniels, directed by Sarah Frankcom, was the first in a series of one-off rehearsed readings that form part of Queer Theatre, the National Theatre’s season of events celebrating and remembering LGBT+ history. The readings feature a host of renowned actors including Simon Russell Beale, Russel Tovey and Malcolm Sinclair. The series is particularly poignant since 2017 marks 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

It’s apt that this is the first play to be read in the series since Neaptide was the first full-length play written by a woman to be produced at the National Theatre, in 1986. The story revolves around Claire (read by Jessica Raine of Call The Midwife fame), a single lesbian mother fighting to retain custody of her 7 year-old daughter, played by Morfydd Clark. As a teacher in an all-girls’ comprehensive school, Claire also has to deal with the wider community’s view on lesbianism and the hurdles lesbians in the 1980’s faced. When two schoolgirl’s come out as lesbians and the staff go into uproar, Claire faces the dilemma of supporting the girls’ and coming out in a hostile environment or remaining in the closet to help her in court. Alongside the narrative is the myth of Demeter and Persephone, framed as a story told to Claire’s daughter. It expresses the love of a mother-daughter bond that is reflected, which is particularly harrowing considering Claire’s custody struggle.

It’s this comedy that really gives the play an edge, it would be understandable to expect a ‘kitchen sink’ type drama when hearing the synopsis of the play, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only was the dialogue incredibly witty but the inflection, comic timing and facial expressions of the actors really brought the audience to fits of laughter (especially the interactions between Helena Lymbery and Adjoa Andoh). Perhaps it’s the stripped back nature of a reading that allowed this to happen; by taking away the costumes, sets, props and lighting you were left with the play in its raw form and could really focus on the actors and the script.

Having never attended a rehearsed reading before I was somewhat sceptical of how certain elements of the play would work. As Neaptide was performed as a rehearsed reading, a medium it was not designed for, there were some challenges e.g. multi-rolling. I was pleased however to see that these were dealt with simply – when Thomas Arnold had to change from playing one character to another straight after he simply rotated his whole body, indicating he was in a different scene. There were however, as to be expected, points where the narrative felt that it needed to be ‘brought to life’ with staging. This did not detract from the audience’s enjoyment and in fact just fuelled my desire to see the play as it was intended to be performed.

Although the other readings in the Queer Theatre series appear to be equally thought-provoking and reflective, Neaptide is the only reading in which women comprise the majority of the cast, and the only piece to follow the story of queer females. In a showcase of seminal queer theatre, this just highlights the need for more queer female stories on stage.

Queer Theatre played at the National Theatre until July 10, with talks, exhibitions and events until September 23

Photo: James Bellorini

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