Review: Three More Sleepless Nights, National Theatre

This short play by Caryl Churchill ran prior to productions of Phèdre in the Lyttleton Theatre and with cheap ticket prices, proved a welcome addition to the regular programme. Three More Sleepless Nights looks at the fragility of relationships through the eyes of two all-too-human couples in three short acts. I’d viewed this primarily as an opportunity to see some great acting talent, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself engrossed in the travails of these couples as soon as the curtain had risen.

Ian Hart (eagerly anticipated by me at least in the forthcoming Speaking in Tongues) and Lindsey Coulson have great chemistry in their opening scene as a long-married long-suffering couple, Frank and Margaret, who argue constantly about his drinking and infidelity and her frustrations. They both give as good as they take and the scene is filled with sharply observed overlapping dialogue which was often very funny.

Hattie Morahan and Paul Ready (both fresh from Time and the Conways) had a more difficult job in showing their disconnected couple in the second scene, who despite sharing a bed, seem to occupy completely different planes. Ready’s Pete is affable enough and mines much gentle humour from his relating everything to sci-fi films: he also rocks an amazing set of brown M&S style pyjamas which made me wonder if anyone still wears pyjamas and how lucky I am that I no longer receive them as Christmas presents. But this film chat is clearly a mechanism for avoiding discussing Dawn’s (Morahan) serious issues as she is suffering from panic attacks, questioning whether she is even alive and disturbingly close to self-harm, with Pete seemingly oblivious or simply worn out from dealing with his brittle wife.

The third scene then looks at another, perhaps surprising couple, as we begin to see Churchill’s point that patterns in relationships are very hard to shake off and people are often doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The set was minimal, perching as it had to on top of the set for Phèdre, with the one double bed which filled in for all three locations but this helped to emphasise the sense of continuity, especially in the final act, and maintained the air of intimacy in the piece. Having secured second row seats, I very much felt this intimacy but the Lyttleton is so deep a theatre, I can’t imagine that the same impact would have been felt further back, especially due to the (necessary) limited use of the stage: perhaps the play might have been better situated in the Cottesloe.

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