Review: WIFE, Kiln Theatre

WIFE by Samuel Adamson presents four stories over four generations, hurtling through a period of eighty years. This new play is all at once a tribute to queer histories and identities, a celebration of strong women, and an examination of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Specifically, the historically controversial protagonist Nora, who walks out on her husband in search of freedom.  

The play opens on an emotionally charged scene in 1959. Unfolding is an uncomfortable backstage showdown between actress Suzannah (Sirine Saba), her married lover Daisy (Karen Fishwick) and Daisy’s brutish husband Robert (played by Joshua James with suitable arrogance). Suzannah has just stepped out of character as Nora, and Robert is incensed by the content of the play. It’s a tense and instantly captivating scene. As the story progresses, lines from this first scene are reflected and echoed throughout the other generations.

The later stories depict characters related to this original trio, in differing ways – sometimes by blood, sometimes not. The travel through time depicts slow but steady progress in attitudes towards homosexuality, yet little progress in the happiness of the character’s lives. The struggle remains ever-present. As Fishwick states as a different character, Clare, “now is the middle ages. You should be angry.” This statement rings painfully true both within the context of the play and as an audience member. We are regressing, the play points out, in more ways than one.

This is a multi-layered and complex piece of work. There is a lot going on and a lot being said, which has the potential to feel too busy, but somehow it never does. Adamson’s writing is clever and intricate, deftly interweaving these four stories in a way that is delightful to watch. His script is also a masterclass in dialogue and storytelling. There are moments which I felt to be a little too exposition-y, pointing the audience to things I think we’d already figured out – but at the same time, the confirmations and signposts made for a comforting experience.

Indhu Rubasingham’s production is rich and engaging, and brings to beautiful life both the intelligence of the words and the skill of the actors. The use of multi-roles works very well and is taken on board deftly by all performers. Fishwick shines as the reserved, anxious Daisy of the 1950s and then the outspoken, determined Clare of 2018. Joshua James is funny and moving, particularly as the camp, politically-driven Ivar. Richard Cant seamlessly accepts the baton of the same character 30 years later, in a gentle, fragile embodiment. Calam Lynch is heartbreakingly truthful as Ivan’s lover – the confused, closeted Eric. And Saba is truly exquisite to watch as the different embodiments of Suzannah, who is a perfect combination of charming and blunt.

Design by Richard Kent, lighting by Guy Hoare and sound by Alexander Caplen stunningly pull all of this together. The final scene showing the moment that Daisy and Suzannah meet at a sun-drenched garden party is particularly beautiful and lovely. I find myself leaning in, wanting to soak up some of the thrill they are experiencing.

WIFE is as much a tribute to feminism as it is to queer identities, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s so very relevant – this is a play for right now, but also for times past and times to come. Just like the character of Ivar suggests, if you don’t say ‘this is me’, then you can’t be free. And that’s something that I, for one, will be bearing in mind for a while.

WIFE is playing the Kiln until 6 July. For more information and tickets, see the Kiln website.