The week in theatre: The Second Woman; Brokeback Mountain; Once on This Island – review

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a show without watching every minute. I was there for just over four of the 24 hours in which Ruth Wilson was The Second Woman. When I left – for practical reasons, not pique – on Friday night, a queue was snaking down the side of the Young Vic out of sight of the entrance. By 3 on Saturday morning, the theatre tweeted that there was only a three-hour wait to get in; at 9 it advised it was pointless to start queueing.

The queuers were waiting to see Wilson repeat a seven-minute scene with 100 different actors, most of them not professional, none rehearsed. Nat Randall and Anna Breckon’s play, inspired by John Cassavetes’s film Opening Night, was first seen seven years ago in Australia. The action takes place in a transparent box with a table, two chairs, a drinks trolley and the air flushed scarlet; ambulant camera operators capture closeups on an adjacent screen. Certain things always occur: Wilson is greeted by someone carrying a Chinese takeaway, who apologises for recent behaviour. The two of them – about to be not a couple – dance. Wilson throws some food and receives a final declaration. There is always more noodling than canoodling.

I began as a sceptic, thinking the dialogue too self-consciously meagre, and any variations likely to be obvious. I ended as a convert. A myriad tiny unexpected differences – of word, gesture, expression – retune each scene. A young actor wrings our withers with plaintive good will. An older fellow moves in for a snog. Wilson unpredictably targets face, front or crotch with the noodles, swings one chap round by his regimental tie, sinks beneath others, her legs splayed like a shop mannequin. She mimics a grimace. She evades a glance. The sense of what is happening, of who is in control, constantly changes. The evening becomes enriched with its own history.

The two men fold into each other in a way that shows heart dependence as well as sexual electricity

Wilson of course is a magnet: moving between spooky and serene, veiled and utterly open. Yet the show also exposes the dynamics between onstage characters and the interaction with an audience. Is this an ad for live theatre or proof of the thrill of an event? The difference for this critic would be calibrated by the point at which I started writing more about myself than what I saw.

I missed – damn it – surprise appearances by Andrew Scott and Idris Elba. I missed charting differences between Wilson fresh and worn: did her immaculateness – she is in a red cocktail dress with blond hostess flick-up hair – begin to look sinister or sad? I was, though, elevated – unconsciously and viscerally – by hours that were a lesson in attention to detail, an immersion. Forget about mindfulness: just go to the theatre. Or line up for it. (And now that queues, regal and otherwise, are all the rage, when will someone make a musical about them?)

Brokeback Mountain, based on the short story by Annie Proulx, also demands detailed attention. Ashley Robinson has written a crystallised version of the love affair between two (“I ain’t much of a talker”) cowboys. Jonathan Butterell’s production is faithful in gesture and in phrase (“balls on him the size of apples”) to Proulx’s earth-shaking tale. Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges – understated yet intensely focused – are both terrific; as, in the tiny roles of disillusioned wife and sassy waitress, are Emily Fairn and Sophie Reid. Individual moments are exquisitely rendered. In the fire glow of David Finn’s lighting, the two men fold into each other in a way that shows heart dependence as well as sexual electricity (the sex itself is glimpsed as shadows inside a rumpled tent).

There is no attempt to suggest the big sweep of Wyoming landscape seen in the 2005 movie, which echoes the bold longing of men who feel they “could paw the white out of the moon”. This is an intimate story. Yet not altogether an inward one. Plot and passion are delivered at one remove from the men themselves. Paul Hickey patrols the action as an old codger looking back on his youth. The pulse of longing is captured by an evocative onstage band of pedal steel guitar, harmonica, upright bass and Eddi Reader, singing both smoothly and with a touch of rasp; songs are by Dan Gillespie Sells. The effect is of a fine elegy but one without risk. The tale deserves both barrels.

Some of the difficulties of putting across a story within a framing device are also evident in Ola Ince’s production of the 1990 musical Once on This Island. The plot, told as a fairytale to a child, features a barter with the gods and a love story on a colonised island; the details are too tangled to follow.

Bringing voodoo to Regent’s Park arouses wild possibilities. They float in the air but don’t land. The characters are crudely divided between beaming villagers and bad people in suits. Gently percussive and balladic music (by Stephen Flaherty) occasionally charms but never startles. The rhymes in Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics clodhop. Gabrielle Brooks is a considerable singer who makes the vegetation tremble when she first belts out – but then has nowhere to go. Sumptuous costumes by Melissa Simon-Hartman dash across the greenery but too often the park itself becomes an impediment: a character goes on an island odyssey only to end up quaking under a very English bush. Adventurousness and good intentions aren’t enough to lift a bad spell.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Second Woman
Brokeback Mountain ★★★
Once on This Island ★★