Jane Edwardes in west London
11 June 2023
The three monologues or, as he would say, poems that make up all of it are by Alistair McDowall, the highly original playwright, best known for Pomona, X, and The Glow. The magnificent Kate O’Flynn rises to the challenge, and reveals in a torrent of words the strange inner life that lurks within the most ordinary of human beings. Northfield, 1940 and In Stereo are both new pieces, which McDowall has specially written for Flynn. They join the much-acclaimed all of it, first seen at the Royal Court in 2020, in a short evening, which lasts only 90 minutes.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
Northfield, 1940 portrays an ordinary woman in an unusual fashion. Written during lockdown and haunted by the people who previously lived in his house in Manchester, McDowall sets the piece in a room that is dominated by a giant Morrison shelter. Against a background of mottled, sludgy walls, O’Flynn in a green dress seems to fade into her surroundings as she describes her life in a downbeat, Mancunian accent. She is a night owl, who finds it difficult to function during the day; a middle-aged, single woman who barely communicates with her disabled father since the recent death of her mother. Ignored by the other women in the typing pool where she works, she finds solace in reading.
There’s a glimmer of humour when she re-enacts lying in the shelter with her father, who is trying it out for size. As they tentatively begin to make contact, recalling the woman who once dominated both their lives, the sound of an air-raid siren forces O’Flynn to stay lying on the floor unable to escape. So far, so normal during wartime, but what makes the piece unusual is that it is bookended by what one assumes are her inner thoughts, an outpouring of poetic imagery that describes initially an apocalyptic scenario, and finally her anguished fears. Who is the real woman? The prosaic one we have seen on stage? Or the one who dreams of mythical beasts and petrified beings?
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
In Stereo is even more surreal; at times it feels like a thriller. The same mottled walls (designer Merle Hensel) come into their own as O’Flynn sits silently eating a pot pudding in front of the television, while we listen to her pre-recorded thoughts. In a manner that recalls Charlotte Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, she becomes obsessed by a growing stain on the wall, which she struggles to remove with a variety of cleaning products.
The mundanity of her efforts is offset by the realization that, far from being alone, as she believed and hoped, she is in fact sharing the house with a growing number of variations of herself. “I knew it wasn’t usual to be in two pieces like this but I didn’t seem to be causing any harm so I just put it to one side and went to sleep.” One doppelgänger becomes many, and the room is filled with the sound of their several voices. They only seem to emphasize O’Flynn’s isolation as she continues to focus on the stain which gradually becomes a gaping hole and eventually swallows her up.
Finally, all human life is portrayed in all of it. O’Flynn gives an extraordinary performance in a piece that is almost as challenging as Beckett’s Not I. Sitting on a stool, microphone in hand, she hurtles through the seven ages of a woman, from cradle to grave. That she has so little time to take breath is indicative of the way that life rushes by, from the primal obsessions of a small child – “Wet / Wet / Water / In / In / Out” – to the guilt, recollections, and tenderness of someone at the end of her life. There’s the realization that everyone dies.
School, friends, sex, parties, marriage, children, grandchildren. The monotony of work. There are whole minutes in which O’Flynn says nothing but “Driving to work”. The phrase “I’m fine” is often repeated, which of course means anything but. “Think I had a good life, but it’s hard to tell,” she mutters. Again, the stages of her life are predictable – it is easy to anticipate the battles with her daughter and the divorce – but the language and form which McDowall uses to describe them are striking.
Always remarkably transparent, O’Flynn is triumphant in this final piece, letting us feel all the different emotions in spite of the speed in which they are expressed. Vicky Featherstone and her co-director, Sam Pritchard, direct with great sensitivity, while Elliot Griggs’s lighting is outstanding.