Along with its reputation for revivals, Neil McPherson’s west London venue has a knack for delivering great writing, often from abroad. Any play put on here is a safe bet and this UK première from Canadian writer David French is a great start to 2023.
A sophisticated script underlies the simple romance in Salt-Water Moon. Returning to his home in Newfoundland after a year away, the prodigal Jacob aims to win back his sweetheart, Mary, only a month before her wedding.
The characters drive the drama. Is Mary really as cold and angry as she seems? Bryony Miller’s excellent performance in the role shows the character’s “steel and fire”. And is Jacob genuine or just a “schemer”? Joseph Potter brings charm to the role but preserves a suspicion about the “brazen” Jacob that slowly melts away.
As the couple awaits the return of Mary’s fiancé (a vivid character, despite never setting foot on stage), French gives us far more than the suggested scenario of “a wolf and a lamb”, making this a romance we want to be rekindled. As the odds against the couple mount, so does the audience’s emotional involvement.
Motives for both characters are carefully revealed as they journey towards the truth so that the play has suspense despite a lack of action. Peter Kavanagh’s impeccable direction is suitably restrained and the minimal yet stylish set by Mim Houghton is similarly appropriate.
It is the confidence in French’s writing that stands out. Many a historical drama could benefit from such a sure hand – one that doesn’t feel the need for extraneous detail. Likewise, the sense of a real community – still dealing with the aftermath of World War I and full of inequality – shows us the lived experience of its characters with no sniff of a history lesson. This is impressive writing: Salt-Water Moon is a quality show through and through with a strong script skilfully produced.
Until 28 January 2023
Photo by Lucy Hayes
Tom Stoppard fans might venture out to this clever two-hander to see how the playwright Pavel Kohout influenced his work. But the piece deserves a larger audience, as its excellent script debates art and history – and the interaction between the two – with economy and emotional power.
The scenario is simple – an ‘I’m your biggest fan’ kind of visit to a wealthy novelist. There’s suspense, as it’s clear the intense Irene isn’t simply nervous about meeting an author, while the urbane writer Zofia has something to hide. Peter Kavanagh’s tense direction (aided by some classy lighting) has touches of Hitchcock of Highsmith. What’s not to like already?
The power play between the two women is exciting. These are meaty roles that Lise-Ann McLaughlin and Philippa Heimann clearly relish. I’m not sure Irene needs such a strong accent (she has spent most of her life in the UK), but the delivery is good. And Zofia’s frailty doesn’t quite convince, despite an excellent performance from McLaughlin. But this is solid work on characters that could be defined solely by issues, and both performers make them full of life with a palpable sense of their histories. There are also great twists for both, as Kohout plays with who we feel sorry for, or admire, more.
“A voice to her scream”
So, lots to praise. But neither the craftsmanship nor the production’s strengths form the best part of Cyanide at 5! The real satisfaction comes from an intelligent script with a surprisingly light examination of the role of art, alongside a powerful insight into the history of the Holocaust. Kohout isn’t intimidated by either big topic. Zofia defends her book’s profitability because she gave a voice to a victim – but most of her defence is less lyrical. The big concern is authenticity. Yet we’re asked to think about the publishing industry and celebrity alongside how books affect their readers.
As for the power of art, Zofia’s book – and its questioned status as fiction – comes into dramatic conflict with real life. Irene was a refugee, smuggled out of wartime Poland. Zofia has become rich but has lost a lot. Irene’s dangerous anger is overpowering… is it fair? And how well does Zofia’s justification for her carefully revealed actions work? Kohout’s open-ended conclusion is fitting, given the sophistication of emotions and arguments presented.
Until 26 November 2022
Photo by Tara Kelly