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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Speaking in Tongues
Duke of York's Theatre Autumn 2009

Andrew Bovell's 1996 drama is actually a double bill (The playwright acknowledges in a programme interview that it began as two separate plays) bound together by a shared cast, some thin connections between the characters, and a common theme of betrayal and its consequences.

Both plots are built on extraordinarily unlikely coincidences, but if you can see past them, you will find real and moving human dramas at the core.

The first act opens almost like a sex farce as two adulterous couples meet in two hotel rooms. Bovell borrows the Alan Ayckbourn trick of actually putting them in the same room and carries it a step further by making the opening dialogue identical - indeed, spoken in unison by the four actors.

But gradually, as they begin to deviate from the common script, four distinct characters with distinct reasons for straying and different reactions to the temptation emerge, and as they become individualised, we begin to recognise and care about their feelings.

Then Bovell reveals that they are in fact two married couples - that is, each of the men is married to the woman in the other tryst - and shows us what happens when everyone returns home. To carry the unlikelihoods even further, the two men will meet and share confidences, without knowing who they're speaking to, as will the two women.

You can see what I mean about a reliance on coincidence, but Bovell doesn't hide the artifice, and he uses it skilfully to help us see how confusing and painful the impulse to, and results of, betrayal are, to everyone involved. John Simm, Ian Hart, Lucy Cohu and Kerry Fox sensitively develop their characters from the initial stereotypes to rounded and sympathetic portraits.

The working-out of Act One includes the telling of a couple of stories about offstage acquaintances, and it is those characters who come to the centre of Act Two with stories about betrayal of another sort - not being there for someone who depends on you.

A man who has spent years nurturing the loving memory of the girl who got away encounters her again, and she barely remembers him. A woman whose car breaks down can't reach her husband because he's with his mistress, and she disappears, possibly dead.

Once again Bovell openly invokes coincidence, making the heartless girl of one story the mistress of the second, while the missing woman is the psychologist to whom she confesses her resentment at the old boyfriend's implicit emotional blackmail.

And this time the manipulations are a bit more strained and less resonant, as we're a little too aware of the machinery by which the playwright gets his points across - for example, in the recitation of a quartet of too-obviously symbolic dreams or in how the shrink, in counselling her client, is actually talking about her own marriage.

Still, as in the first act, the emotional truths overcome the structural artifice as we explore and recognise the many varieties of need and frequently unconscious betrayal that make up ordinary life.

And at least one character comes fully alive, with acting honours here going to Ian Hart as the adulterous husband, the one out of the group who tried hardest to be there for the one who depended on him, and who must now live with the knowledge of his failure.

Speaking in Tongues may at times be too clever for its own good, but past the manipulations and coincidences are human beings and human truths that will move you in the theatre and linger in your thoughts afterwards.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Speaking in Tongues - Duke of York's 2009