Review: Nightwatchman, National Theatre

Forming the first half of Double Feature 2 is this debut play from Prasanna Puwanarajah. Puwanarajah has a lot he wants to get off his plate, several ideas bubbling under and consequently the end of result is that Nightwatchman is both overloaded – thematically its reach incorporates too many weighty issues for the running time – and undernourished – the format precludes any of them being dealt with in a satisfactory manner. Whether its talking about the travails of playing a minority sport like women’s cricket, delving into her own history as growing up ‘different’, in many senses of the word, in Salford, recounting the troubled history of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka or debating matters of identity and nationality in a multicultural world, flashes of insight constantly emerge, hinting at a playwright who does show promise.

But in flitting around such huge topics without really engaging with them beyond the superficial, there’s a sense of frustration that builds. A fair amount of knowledge is presumed of the audience member, my hazy recall of the recent geopolitics in the region didn’t help enough, and the jargon-filled cricket references mainly sailed on by. Worst of all though, is that is makes Abirami a largely unsympathetic protagonist. Every time the surface is scratched and the promise of something interesting to further develop is revealed, Puwanarajah ducks away and the attention diverted elsewhere. Stephanie Street battles gamely to bring life beyond the labels, to flesh out this character beyond being a simple vessel to spout words but she is fighting a losing battle against the material. It is a fine performance though.

Polly Findlay’s direction includes a series of neat tricks to suggest the effects of Abirami’s sometimes-wayward ball hitting which were cleverly done, Soutra Gilmour’s simple set proving effective, but it was hard to escape the feeling that this part of the larger experiment wasn’t a huge success. As a piece of new writing from a debut playwright, there’s the suggestion of an interesting voice that could emerge, but overall the experience was not hugely enjoyable for me, nor for others as the number of non-returnees after the interval attested. (Walking out of this does seem a curious choice though as the whole point of the evening is that the second half will be completely different: maybe they did enjoy this but just had trains to catch…)

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