Skylight, Wyndham's Theatre, review: Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy star in 'splendid' revival

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This award-winning 1995 played by David Hare was immediately recognised as being one of his richest and most satisfying works when it was premiered nearly two decades ago in a National Theatre production starring Michael Gambon and Lia Williams. How has it stood the test of time?

Remarkably well is the answer to judge from this splendid revival which brings together seasoned Hare stalwarts (director Stephen Daldry and Bill Nighy who inherited the lead male role from Gambon in 1997) and highly talented Hare neophytes (Carey Mulligan and Matthew Beard who played alongside each other in the film An Education and are both making their West End debuts). 

But though it's Mulligan's first outing in this particular neck of the woods, she demonstrated her theatrical prowess early on in 2007, before her movie career took off, as an absolutely heart-rending Nina to Mackenzie Crook's Konstantin in a Royal Court staging of The Seagull that transferred to Broadway. 

It's good to report that she confirms that promise now  with a performance of extraordinarily contained power – stretching from wry self-possession to disciplined fury —- as Kyra in Hare's penetrating study of a relationship in which mutual attraction is painfully at variance with political persuasion. 

The setting is Kyra's freezing, dingy Kensall Rise flat – the open-plan design by Bob Crowley gives us the bleak context by showing the council block opposite.  One wintry evening, she receives two visitors in succession: Edward (spot-on Matthew Beard), the gauche, well-meaning son of her former lover Tom, and Tom himself (Bill Nighy) a thriving Thatcherite restaurateur with whom she had a six year affair before his wife found out.  Now widowed and a mass of unresolved guilt and grief, Tom has turned up, three years on, to conduct some unfinished business.  But meanwhile Kyra has built a new life for herself as a dedicated teacher in a run-down comprehensive.

The actors beautifully trace the arc from the thaw of verbal sparring as Kyra cooks spaghetti bolognese, through rekindled passion to the final bout of full-blooded ideological jousting in which one's sympathies are swung one way and another.  

Handling a stale of lump of cheese as though it were radioactive, Nighy's pained, restlessly energised reprobate is like a rangy observational comic as he delivers his very funny arias of right-wing scorn at her self-sacrificial mode of existence.  It suits him to believe that she's in denial and has chosen to love people in general because she's not up to the harder task of loving one person in particular (ie him). 

There may be an element of truth in this but Mulligan's moving, intensely focused performance emphasises the character's hard-won clear-eyed wisdom rather than her righteousness.  Why worry about purity of motive, she asks, when there is a vital job to be done: public sector dirty-work “clearing out society's drains”?  And what right have the sneering, self-pitying rich to take their own “rotten consciences” out on probation officers, teachers and social workers? 

As delivered with stinging unneurotic fervour by Mulligan, these passages never feel like sermons but arise with emotional logic from the situation.  And if they win the odd round of applause, it's not because the production is unbalanced but because the play is speaking with a discomfitingly renewed relevance. 

To 23 August; 0207 400 1257; NT Live Broadcast on 17 July 

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