Theatre Review: THE NIGHT WATCH – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The Night Watch Royal Exchange Theatre

Compelling, thoughtful and theatrically inventive, THE NIGHT WATCH is a story of illicit love and everyday heroism

Sarah Waters’ captivating novel THE NIGHT WATCH has been adapted for the stage for the first time in a fantastic new production by the Royal Exchange Theatre.

Set in the late 1940s, THE NIGHT WATCH follows the stories of five people recovering from the chaos of war. Moving backwards through the devastation of the London Blitz, three love affairs begin to intertwine as the five lives knit together, uncovering a past of secrets, desire and regret.

Compelling, thoughtful and theatrically inventive, THE NIGHT WATCH is a story of illicit love and everyday heroism set against the backdrop of war. Olivier-nominated playwright Hattie Naylor has done a fantastic job of translating Waters’ 2006 novel from page to stage, delivering a dazzling piece of theatre that shakes up our preconceptions of the past.

The most striking feature of THE NIGHT WATCH is its structure. Events are told in reverse chronological order over a six-year period with the narrative homing in on three years in particular: the Blitz of 1941, the so-called ‘Little Blitz’ of early 1944 and a two week period in 1947, two years after end of the Second World War. The reverse narrative gives a sense of dislocation, highlighting the disintegration of private lives but also the ramifications of irrefutable loss.

Georgia Lowe’s evocative stage design cleverly makes use of the Exchange’s small, intimate space. Two circular discs constantly rotate throughout the performance with the stark and innovative set cleverly taking us from scenes set in a quiet dating agency, to a bombed out church and a prison cell. As time turns backwards, so does the set, reversing like a clock, moving time from a dazed and shattered post-war Britain back into the heart of the Blitz.

Director Rebecca Gatward does an impressive job with the careful plotting, allowing scenes to overlap as the narrative sweeps across characters. The chaotic destruction wrought by war is vividly captured, most notably in the acting by the strong cast, with Kelly Hotten as Helen, Jodie McNee as Kay and Joe Jameson as Duncan standing out in particular.

While the disjointed structure of THE NIGHT WATCH is what makes this play special, the pacing between the first and the second acts is unevenly matched. Too long is spent on the aftermath of war – the entire first half in fact – resulting in the 1941 Blitz and 1944 ‘Little Blitz’ being crammed into the second half. As Kay makes reference to herself, “people’s past are more exciting than their future” but the uneven pacing makes it seem like a lifetime before hidden truths are revealed.

That said, there is plenty of love about THE NIGHT WATCH and despite its grim backdrop, the script boasts much wit and humour. All in all, a beautiful and thrilling adaptation of a great modern novel.

4 out of 5 stars

THE NIGHT WATCH runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 18 June 2016.