There’s a line right at the start of Hattie Naylor’s faithful adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel The Night Watch that’s taken straight from the book, and it’s the key to the piece. It’s 1947 and Kay, lonely and deracinated, spends her time going to the flicks, often entering the cinema halfway through and watching the second half first.
“I almost prefer them that way – people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures.” And that’s how the play is, back to front, like the novel – which has its charms and its problems.
I’m reminded of David Hare’s Plenty. Londoners Kay, Helen and Julia had a good war, they could wear what they liked, had responsibility at work, and social norms went by the board; but the peace, the peace is dull. Social norms are back, being gay is not. Without the threat of imminent death in the Blitz and in the bleakness of the post-war recovery, life is hard and unexciting. And that’s where the story begins.
If you’ve read the book you’ll immediately know who everyone is, why they matter to you and to each other, and you’ll enjoy the dramatic ironies being played out in front of you. If, like me, you haven’t read the book, it’s a bit like doing a cryptic crossword. Who are these people? Why should I care about them? How are they connected? I was still pondering that at the end of act one, but act two brought enlightenment, and a great deal of pleasure. I now need to go back and watch act one again so I get the ironic nuances that meant nothing to me the first time, and that’s a limitation of this structure for a play. With a book you can always skip back and check.
Even so the performances are uniformly excellent, the sense of period entirely convincing, and the stories – there are several – extremely engaging. What does shine through is how the war gave licence to the demi-monde of gay and lesbian life to just get on with it. Everyone was too busy trying to survive and have as good a time as they could without worrying too much about anybody else. And girls could wear boys’ clothes without comment.
The ending, which is really the beginning, is rather moving, but because it’s the beginning and not the ending, and you know how these stories will end, you realise that this is the only way the stories could be told, because they don’t end well. One is left, much like the characters, with a sense of loss and quiet desperation.
Photos by Mark Douet
The Night Watch is on until September 7, 2019. For more information, click here.