It’s been more than twenty years since David Hare’s Skylight premiered at the National Theatre. Now, in a post-Thatcher world, Stephen Daldry has brought this time capsule of a play back to the London stage.
Tom Sergeant is a successful business man, a role originally created by Michael Gambon succeeded here by Bill Nighy in its first West End transfer – alongside him Carey Mulligan masterfully portrays Kyra Hollis, a girl Sergeant once had an affair with. Kyra is in her late 20’s, a maths teacher in a rough East Ham comprehensive who spends her evenings in a dingy and freezing council flat in Kensal Rise, evocatively created by Bob Crowley’s design. Nighy’s Tom Sergeant is the polar opposite – a wealthy restaurateur, the upper end of middle aged, with a very sharp suit to match.
Kyra and Tom have a complicated relationship. She once worked for Tom in his restaurant business, rising from a waitress to manager in 45 minutes. Tom and his wife took her into their home and made her part of the family. She knew their children and got on well with his wife. She also had an affair with him lasting 6 years, until Tom’s wife found out. Three years later Tom’s wife is dead and Kyra is working in the sink school having walked away from the family. Now, on a cold December night Tom’s well-dressed figure comes knocking at Kyra’s council flat.
Tom is drawn to Kyra by a mixture of grief, longing and regret and his arrival, though foreshadowed by the appearance of Tom’s son (Mathew Beard), knocks her out of her composed and controlled sangfroid.
On the whole this is a brilliant production, with Mulligan and Nighy infinitely watchable and at times heartbreaking. Yet there are some issues one finds hard to forgive. Hare, known mainly now for his state-of-the-nation pieces focused on slightly dry agenda, delivers here a play of real fizz, matching fiery character with political issues. This is a play written by an upper class white man dealing in big broad issues far too simplistically and symbolically – a rather blunt attack on Thatcherism.
But Nighy and Mulligan carry the show wonderfully. The sense of repressed longing shared between them is obvious as soon as Tom steps into the freezing flat. Mulligan’s Kyra is played beautifully with a captivating stillness and calmness that belies the passions within. These explode to the surface after much goading from Tom.
As Tom, it’s hard not to watch Nighy. His tall, elegant and angular figure carries itself like an eighteenth century dandy in an immaculately cut suit and overcoat. He also gets the most laughs with wonderfully delivered speeches on his hatred of gardening and local authority-sponsored bereavement counselors.
Some of its dialogue has a slightly charming nostalgia to it today – Tom’s son referring to rap music and having to explain a “gap yah” clearly signpost it as a period piece. However, I must say, a period piece incredibly well recreated with dodgy boiler, Sony discman’s, et al.
The production is also let down by Matthew Beard’s monotone and poor impression of Nighy, as if really trying to hammer home that he’s his son, with all the angular physical tics delivered flat and unconvincingly.
Despite the play’s main issues, and some of the already dated dialogue, Skylight is still relevant to us today. After all, we are all Thatcher’s children now.