Nightingale, New End Theatre, London

Lie back and think of England? Here's how it goes...
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The Independent Culture

When actress and writer Lynn Redgrave - best known for her roles in films such as Georgy Girl, Gods and Monsters, Shine and Kinsey - came across her grandmother's grave and found that her name had been washed away by acid rain she started to think about the themes of memory and remembrance. The result is her new, one-woman play Nightingale that tells the story of Mildred Asher, a fictional character based on her maternal grandmother, Beatrice Kempson, from girlhood to old age.

While some might regard Redgrave's ambition to capture the essence of a person in a 75-minute play as a foolhardy enterprise, it has to be said that - for the most part - Nightingale works because the play confines itself to 11 scenes, mere snapshots of existence. We catch glimpses of Mildred (superbly played by Caroline John) as a girl praying to God in church; on the night of her honeymoon in Paris; trying to cope with the trials and tribulations of motherhood; enduring a loveless marriage; and experiencing the promise of passion with a Devon farmer.

This last scene is beautifully played out; the couple hardly touch, not much is said, but Millie weeps "for that which I cannot have, for that which I will never know".

While Redgrave's monologue never approaches the lyrical beauty of poetry like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's and Thomas Hood's, both quoted in the course of the evening, the play is full of touching, poignant and quite funny moments. On her honeymoon the very innocent Millie is all in a tizzy because she hasn't a clue what to do in bed. Her mother had told her to lie back and think of England and, by the end of a night of fumbling, "I had really now thought of every possible corner of England", including the late Queen on the Isle of Wight, inconsolable after losing her dear Albert.

During the play Millie turns into something of a snob and a monster - she feels jealous of her beautiful actress daughter - yet despite this we continue to feel sympathy for the character.

Redgrave, who also directed the play, has a real talent for communicating the despair that comes from a life unlived; the nightingale of the title represents a freedom of spirit that Millie has never known. This bitter-sweet birdsong deserves to be heard by all.

To 19 February, 0870 033 2733

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