The week in theatre: London Tide; The Comeuppance; Gunter – review

<span>Bella Maclean captures a ‘troubled sulkiness’ as Bella Wilfer in London Tide.</span><span>Photograph: Marc Brenner</span>
Bella Maclean captures a ‘troubled sulkiness’ as Bella Wilfer in London Tide.Photograph: Marc Brenner

London theatre is going gargantuan. Is this a reaction against rapid, let’s-not-breathe-the-same-air-for-too-long pandemic plays? Is it a need for all-embracing stories, a hope that there is something that lasts longer than an individual life or a government? This month, Long Day’s Journey into Night took on the far reaches of family memory while Player Kings compacted huge Shakespearean histories. Now London Tide tackles the surge and despair of the capital. This is another three-hour-plus evening.

Ben Power has adapted Dickens’s mighty Our Mutual Friend, efficiently filleting heir-marriage-murder plots into a series of quick scenes on Bunny Christie’s obsidian set. He has tilted the action towards the novel’s moral and social concerns rather than its fugitive weirdness, has given the female characters larger says and trimmed some satirical glories: the nouveaux-riches Veneerings don’t make the cut. One of the chief threats of Dickens stagings – reduction to a series of capering grotesques that might be called Dickensian – is avoided. Bella Maclean and Tom Mothersdale are particularly astute: Maclean with a crystalline voice and a troubled sulkiness; Mothersdale using to the hilt his capacity for making the vestigial into a peculiarly compelling quality.

The fluid alchemy of the novel is missing, the perpetual change not only of character but of place

Yet Ian Rickson’s production aims to be more than episodically charged, to explore the life of the city that is not contained by character. It is not sufficiently wraparound-vibrant to achieve this. The boldest stroke is the inclusion of songs by PJ Harvey and Power. Accompanied onstage by Ian Ross (piano and guitars), Alex Lupo (drum kit) and Sarah Anderson (keyboards), the numbers run through the evening: choric, solo, accusing, insistent, melancholy, often with a beat like the stamping of feet. They supply a dark, rough undertow but they don’t push on the drama. Rather, like a tide, they simply recur.

Christie’s set – with iron lighting rigs that rise and fall – is evocatively adamantine, when not looking like decor for a 21st-century loft. The evening would profit from relying more on Jack Knowles’s lighting – crepuscular and rippling with reflections – and less on characters reporting to the audience on the blood-red sun. The fluid alchemy of the novel is missing, the perpetual change not only of character but of place and, crucially, of trade and finance. It was, after all, Dickens’s brilliance to show the city’s wealth as being based on the great London dustheaps. Filthy lucre indeed.

The American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is making it his business to roast old theatrical chestnuts. In Appropriate, he unravelled the idea of family ghosts. In An Octoroon, he reworked a 19th-century melodrama and got actors to white up. In The Comeuppance, which director Eric Ting first staged last year in New York, he takes off from the well-worn theme of a reunion – in this case, former students coming together 20 years after graduation. Such meetings always pivot on unwelcome disclosures. Yet Jacobs-Jenkins’s surprises are of an unusual order. He surrounds down-to-earth encounters with a nimbus of otherworldly uncertainty.

The opening moments are subtly unsettling. Arnulfo Maldonado’s design, lit with a chill by Natasha Chivers, signals familiarity on the fade. A homey porch, with swing bench and tired American flag, has at the centre a door, like another proscenium arch, with a gauze screen: as people move through it they can seem to be ghosted. When Anthony Welsh, the effortless anchor of the evening, speaks, he has a double voice: his words echo as if they were being broadcast. He is two things: a maturing man and the incarnation of, well, that would be a spoiler… let’s say, something disruptive.

The play, set immediately after the pandemic, lives up to the threat of its title, catching a group slipping from youth to middle age, from easy companionship to danger, from life to death. Each character has a moment of compulsive confession under a sudden spotlight. Strange that, despite these stilled theatrical moments, the action continues to feel realistic. Yolanda Kettle – the wife of an ex-cop who, she explains, did not actually storm the Capitol – is particularly good at conveying blinkered gaiety vaulting across a chasm. She comes on hugging a jar of goodies the size of a pork roast: “I bought snacks,” she trills.

The dialogue is easygoing, with the group swinging into their old shared slang, yet penetrating. “Hide too much and the hiding becomes you,” one character warns. Who wouldn’t be proud to have written that? Or to have thought of the moment when two people listen to a series of sounds until they go out of range of the human ear. A character who is going blind explains that a lack of depth perception makes it hard for her to manoeuvre around. Depth perception is exactly what Jacobs-Jenkins brings to the stage.

Talented but all over the place, Gunter, co-created by Lydia Higman, Julia Grogan and Rachel Lemon, and first seen last year at Edinburgh, stages episodes from an arresting piece of history from 1604: a killing at a football match; a supposed spell; a witch hunt. The dismantling of the notion of the witch is not as startling as the staging suggests – message sometimes overwhelms story – but the energy is pumped up with drumming and electric guitar, modern-day resonance is underlined with video of surging crowds, and a flavour of 17th-century spookiness imparted with animal masks: a salivating wolf is particularly unnerving. Applause is due, too, for knowingly turned rhymes, sad but true that “split ends” is likely to be equated with “no friends”.

Star ratings (out of five)
London Tide
The Comeuppance
Gunter ★★★