Theatre: French fantasies in Never Land

Theatre: Never Land, Royal Court, London
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was reported last week that English has muscled out French as the language most commonly used in EU documents. Would this news be music to the ears of the middle-aged father in Never Land, the new play by Phyllis Nagy? Il est un drole de type, all right, or a rum cove, as he would feel compelled to put it. He's French and works in a perfume factory, but he insists that he and his family speak perfect English round the clock and he adamantly wears conservative English-style suits. He's an all-day anxiety attack and he dreams of the time when he and his family (wittily alcoholic wife, disturbingly beautiful and disturbed daughter) can shed their dysfunction by moving to England's green and pleasant land.

Nagy, an expatriate American living in London, has the best sense of drama-as-music of any playwright of her generation. This gifted and uneven work is at its best when it cuts loose from the sort of situation tragi-comedy letter-writers could handle and aspires to the condition of rapturous oratorio.

Watching Never Land, I kept thinking what a superb librettist Nagy would have made for the Leonard Bernstein of A Quiet Place, and, though Steven Pimlott's production is very fine (except for one gruesomely synthetic performance), the dream-teaming for me would be Nagy and the more abstract mis-en-scene (if you'll pardon my French) of Robert Wilson.

Never Land reflects, with wit and passion, on a kind of suspended animation of the soul, a feeling of deep unworthiness that continually postpones the vision you so yearn for. A Lottery win, a one-way Eurostar trip and a little place in Chiswick would not solve this family's problems.

As the wife, Sheila Gish gives further stunning proof that she is a great actress, seamlessly portraying this woman's various levels of reality: the naughty fag-cadging co-conspirator with Michelle Fairley's beautifully- weird daughter, both cellmates in the prison of the father's ambitions; the acid louche-lush "graciousness" with the cartoonily English guests her husband foists on them; and, best of all, the sensitive, fundamentally devoted wife who has gone along with her husband's fantasies out of lifelong gratitude for a klutzilly-expressed act of kindness when they first met. It would make the father wince to have it phrased thus: but in Never Land, family life comes across, powerfully, as both a loving and lethal theatre de complicite.

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