Opening with a chance encounter with a former teacher by St Paul’s Cathedral, Stephen Poliakoff’s My City is his first work for the stage in over a decade. But its opening promise of delving into the mysterious hidden depths of a city we think we know so well with the added spice of revisiting mythic childhood teachers outside of the familiar context of the classroom now they are retired is never really fully realised. Poliakoff directs his own work at the Almeida and has secured the return of Tracey Ullman to the stage to play Miss Lambert, the former Headmistress who is found sleeping on a park bench.
Former pupil Richard is the one who finds her and we find out that she has taken to exploring the streets of London at night-time now she is retired and her gift for story-telling that so captivated her pupils remains strong as ever. This in turn prompts a series of renewed contacts which brings in his old school-friend Julie and two more of their teachers. Richard can tell that someone is not quite right with his childhood heroine though and as he seeks to get to the truth of Miss Lambert’s behaviour, he uncovers a world of secrets, lies, disillusionments and memories from all five of them.
But boiling down the play like this is a gross oversimplification and this is where the main weakness lies in My City. The germ of a great play is here and there is some gorgeously evocative writing contained within but it is often swamped by the endless storytelling which constantly arrests the momentum of the show. Ullman is excellent in the flashbacks which capture the wonder of school assemblies which explored the fascinating history of London but the modern tales she now spouts lack the same sense of engaging purpose. Sorcha Cusack and David Troughton make endearingly batty colleagues, moving in their sense of frustration at the way the world has turned out despite their best efforts and Troughton’s tale of his father’s escape from the Holocaust, facilitated by a teacher of course, is the show’s highlight.
As story follows story though and oddness abounds, it becomes increasingly hard to see why Tom Riley’s Richard remains so invested in Miss Lambert’s fate. Riley – who has a meltingly beautiful voice by the way – makes an extremely decent fist of it and has a great sparky connection with Siân Brooke’s excellently brusque Julie. But it feels overlong, disappoints with its tameness given the intriguing start and by the time we reached the terribly neat ending, I’d sadly zoned out. There’s some top quality acting on display here but it doesn’t really make up for the dullness of the play itself.