Theatre Review: Haunted by the past

The Day I Stood Still, Cottesloe, National Theatre
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The Day I Stood Still

Cottesloe, National Theatre, London

A middle-aged gay man and failed novelist is, with a kind of flustered bashfulness, trying to explain one of the tricks of good writing to the handsome 17-year-old godson he hasn't clapped eyes on since the baptismal font. You have to remember, he says, that no two things (apples, birds, grains of sand) are ever quite alike and it's an author's duty to tabulate their particularities accurately. His words peter out, though, and turn into mesmerised endearments, for experience appears to be belying his advice to a hallucinatory degree. Barring the shifts in sartorial fashion, the boy could be the ghostly double of his father, who died young but has remained the love of this unsuccessful writer's life.

No two things are ever fully alike, but Kevin Elyot's new play, , which has its own distinctive beauty, runs the risk of inviting too many comparisons with his excellent, award-winning hit, My Night with Reg. The basic emotional material (the same-sex yearning of one of nature's Plain Jane gooseberries for a romantically handsome but straight close friend) and the structure (tragicomic patterns persisting through artful time-jumps; the pressure exerted on the present by the offstage dead) are similar. Once again, the wit attractively mixes sharpness and generosity of observation: people of all sexual orientations will feel included.

But there is an unexpected poetic quality in the emotional life of this drama. If Reg was about the heightened difficulties of widowhood in a virtually men-only society, Day turns its attention to godparenthood in similar circumstances. The play ends with a long flashback to the charged, stand-out day in the amusingly re-evoked Sixties when, as teenagers, the gay writer and his adored friend (just rampantly discovering the delights of heterosexuality) exchanged tokens of deep affection. In a perhaps too deterministic Time and the Conways fashion, we see here the tragifarcical causes of consequences (eg a furtive emotional dependence on Mars bars) that we have already witnessed.

We watch all of this, however, in the light of a prior leap forward into the present that has, albeit ambiguously, some of the mysterious hope of those redemptive generational shifts in late Shakespeare. The sudden, on-the-run appearance of the 17-year-old godson (excellent Oliver Milburn), the image of his father (if in many ways different) - and a youth who just happens to be in the same gay, lovelorn predicament as Adrian Scarborough's endearingly on-edge, yet superbly passionate, writer was years before - is both a resurrection-fantasy and a terrible responsibility. It's Winter's Tale with the added twist of the ethics of godparenting. An interesting drama might take this as its starting-point. In the abstractness of its setting, its revolvingly re-angled, before-your-very-eyes temporal metamorphoses, and musical underscoring that snags the heart without sentimentality, Ian Rickson's lovely production ensures that the sensitive will not dismiss this fine play as just My Second Night with Reg.

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