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The Theatreguide.London Review

When The Night Begins
Hampstead Theatre      Spring 2004

Why do writers insist on writing non-plays?

Hanif Kureishi's new two-hander is the idea for a play, the basic premise that one might pitch to a producer. But it's not a play.

An older man, evidently living in relative poverty, is visited by his estranged stepdaughter, now a rich widow. She is filled with rage over alleged abuse she received at the stepfather's hands mental, physical, perhaps sexual - and is convinced she can only find peace by confronting and perhaps even killing him.

His answer is that her version of history is warped, and that what she remembers as abuse was merely his attempt to bring some structure into a chaotic household led by a drug-addled mother.

The argument is never resolved, though he does manage to deflect and deflate some of her anger, and eventually she leaves and the 80-minute play ends.

There are hints that Kureishi wanted to create a who-do-you-believe study in ambiguities. Is the woman right in her memories or just wildly neurotic (or both - they're not mutually exclusive)? Is the man misunderstood or manipulating her again to cover up his past crimes?

In more skilful hands this might have turned into an occasion for after-theatre debates like those generated by David Mamet's Oleanna. But Kureishi doesn't develop the characters, the situation or the ambiguities sufficiently to generate such debate.

You won't leave the theatre arguing over who was right because you simply won't care.

What is there is the opportunity for two strong performances. Directed by Anthony Clark, Michael Pennington may work a little too hard at his old codger shtick, but he does sustain an attractive ambiguity to the character.

Catherine McCormack, saddled with a character who has been conceived of as a clich - the brittle, neurotic bitch goes further than you might think possible in making her seem like a real human being.

Fans of the two actors may find their performances worth the trip. But they just shouldn't expect a play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of When The Night Begins - Hampstead Theatre 2004


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