This ‘new’ Mike Bartlett’ play is well-acted at the Arcola Theatre but Not Talking can’t quite hide its origins in radio
“If I don’t want to tell anyone, it’s up to me, right?”
A treat here in the premiere of Mike Bartlett’s first-ever play, never seen before in a theatre. But something of a qualified treat, because 2005’s Not Talking was written as a radio play and as sumptuously cast as James Hiller’s production for the Arcola and Defibrillator is (with Kika Markham and David Horovitch), it’s a drama that never really escapes these origins.
The play is constructed as two pairs of two intertwining but distinct monologues – separated by time on the one side, kept apart by emotional distance on the other. Reflecting back on their lives, James and Lucy have the benefit, such as it is, of experience; at the beginning of their potential story, Mark and Amanda find their lives no less blighted by momentous events.
It’s an intellectually clever conceit and one which Hillier stages with as much ingenuity as he can muster. Amy Cook’s design and Zoe Spurr’s lighting go a long way to creating a sparse, liminal space in which these remembrances are disgorged, painful events recalled, relationships tested to their extreme. And keeping the characters moving allows hints to emerge at their interconnectedness.
I caught a late preview so suitable caveats apply, but the play’s structure does end up working against it as a piece of dramatic theatre. Thematic threads are drawn between past and present, particularly a complex attitude to the military from conscientious objectors to Deepcut, and the strains of Chopin on the piano. But something a little static does weigh down the later stages and ultimately, you could question what the play gains from being mounted IRL.
That said, Markham and Horovitch are predictably excellent as the older couple, estrangement creeping in even after decades together. And Gemma Lawrence and Lawrence Walker impress as a pair of young squaddies coming to terms with an environment which inhibits free communication with devastating effect. Worth a watch if you’re a fan of Bartlett’s work.