Review - Nightfall (Bridge Theatre)

In Nightfall playwright Barney Norris paints a blistering portrait of a family in crisis, and agonisingly explores a mother's attempts to keep her family together after tragedy threatens to pull them apart.

The cast of Nightfall
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
It begins with an idyllic night, 3 childhood friends (Ryan, his sister Lou, and her old flame Pete, Ryan's childhood best friend), doctoring a hose to syphon oil from a pipe running through the back garden of Ryan and Lou's family farm. The opening scene sets place at nightfall, as the title helpfully suggests, and Chris Davey's lighting design sees a murky sunset cast its light across the long back wall of the Bridge Theatre. There's an air of discomfort, uncertainty, from the outset, but it's pushed aside to make room for folksy chats about astrology, drowned in beer which the uneasy party swig from the bottle. That is until a pair of bright white headlights signal the arrival of Ryan and Lou's mother, Jenny. Chastising her grown children like misbehaving toddlers, Her icy entrance ushers in a new wave of awkwardness, and from then on in there's not a second when the 4 aren't treading on eggshells, each straining in a different direction like magnets repelling one another.

The meaning behind what is insinuated by the awkwardness of the first scene is slowly unravelled. Amid the quaint yet ramshackle farmland of rural South England, artfully indicated by Rae Smith's bucolic set design, the 4 characters in Barney Norris’ Nightfall are struggling to open up to each other about the shared traumas which have tightly knotted them all to each other. The audience is quickly informed that Ryan and Lou's father recently passed away, leaving a hole in both of their lives, as well as a burden of responsibility to their family farm, but there's much more going on under the surface.

They’re a deeply damaged group, hiding their pains under strained smiles and posturing niceties, but it doesn’t take long for their truths to come to light. Smug yet lovable Pete recently did time for drunkenly punching and subsequently paralysing someone, frazzled Lou feels directionless, domineering Jenny is still coming to terms with the death of her husband and the debt he left her in, and Ryan, the introverted de facto 'man of the house', is slowly receding further and further into the secluded island of the family farm, whilst simultaneously detesting it. One of the strongest aspects of Nightfall is the way in which every character is dissected in front of the audience. On the bleak and remote farm there is nowhere for the fragmented party to hide, and as such, as they hurtle towards self-destruction, the audience can do nothing but observe.

Ophelia Lovibond and Ukweli Roach in Nightfall
Photo credit Manuel Harlan
Directed by Laurie Sansom, the cast of 4 do an excellent job of propelling the plot, with Ophelia Lovibond making a particularly strong mark as Lou, whose journey to escape the oppressive grasp of her mother leads her to a whirlwind marriage and relocation halfway around the world, which she’s not even sure she wants. Her desperation and dissatisfaction with life cuts sharply through the mugginess of the plot, and is utterly and strikingly believable. Sion Daniel Young is also endearing as Ryan, his pain and grief tangible from the moment he first opens his mouth. At the beginning of the play Ryan seems just a little bit pitiful alongside his more boisterous friend and sharp sister, but by the end he's a haunted shell of a young man, utterly racked with sadness. One gets the sense that he's been bossed around and babied by his mother so much that he's retreated into a childlike state as a coping mechanism in response to the death of his father. It's understated amid the big and loud arguments between Lou and her mother, but heartbreaking nevertheless. Elsewhere, Ukweli Roach gives smug yet lovable Pete energy and defiance needed to set him apart from the doldrums of the farm, and Claire Skinner does well to humanise the detestable matriarch Jenny, although Norris' script notably does little to help her out. 

Despite the painfully realistic plights presented in Norris’ play, the meaning of the piece as a whole never quite materialises in full. The characters all go through relatable life experiences, but none of them really take the foreground. The most prominent thread which runs through the play is that of responsibility, as explored through Ryan and Lou's rejection of their responsibility to protect the family farm, and Jenny’s overprotectiveness, born of responsibility to her family and her husband’s memory. But the idea is crowded by so many other themes and ideas, all jostling against one another, and as such it feels rather diluted for the majority of the play. 

Nightfall builds towards a rather inevitable bittersweet finale, but after the rumblings of secrecy and dissatisfaction which filter through from the very first scene, it feels as if both the characters and the audience expect a more explosive ending.