Updated: Jun 10
Review by Rosie Holmes
Alistair McDowall brings a new trio of plays to Sloan Square’s Royal Court Theatre, all performed by Kate O’Flynn. All performed as monologues, these experimental, perhaps genre-bending pieces explore the internal worlds of three ordinary women. The plays showcase brilliantly inventive writing, as well as three wonderful performances from their only actress.
The first of the plays, Northleigh, 1940, examines the relationship between a grown-up daughter and her father, alone in the house after the death of her mother. The pair process her death, whilst waiting for bombs to fall in the Second World War, as they shelter under the table. It is here that the beginnings of a thematic thread begins to emerge, the idea of loneliness and internal battles as the character struggles to find her authentic self.
The second, In Stereo, again explores the loneliness of a woman inside her house, after the rest of her family have flown the nest. The lonely lady spots a damp mark on her wall, and as it grows, she is engulfed in a cacophony of words, creating a chaotic and almost scary atmosphere. She herself becomes the wall, silently observing others living round her. Directed by Sam Pritchard, this piece becomes horror-like yet still peppered with McDowall’s extraordinary wit. For most of this play, we see O’Flynn on stage, without speaking, as her voice is transmitted to us via recording, and then through the eerily placed television on stage. I’ll be honest, for the first few moments of this second play I wasn’t sure if this would work. O’Flynn had been so wonderful and full of energy in the first piece, I thought this second play would suffer without her delivering the lines live on stage. However, this turned out not to be the case as this inventive staging was wonderfully received – thrilling, sad and funny. Although, I did find myself wanting just a little more of the horror element that creeped through, the use of the television to talk to the audience was a fantastic touch and I did find myself wishing for a little more of this to build tension.
The third and final piece, All of It, was the undoubted highlight of the night. The longest of the three pieces, it takes the audience from cradle to grave as O’Flynn races through the life of a woman, in a highly emotive monologue. Its an absolute rush through the life of an average person in modern society, so fast-paced I am not sure when O’Flynn managed to breathe. As O’Flynn sits in darkness, just with a microphone in hand she takes us through birth, the first words of a baby, a first kiss, going to university, marriage, the monotony of the commute, becoming a mother, then a grandmother, and the eventual inevitability of death. The audience cried not only with laughter during this piece but also with sadness, and that is testament to McDowell’s excellent writing and O’Flynn’s simply astounding ability to bring his words to life.
All three monologues are referred to as poems by McDowall, and all were written specifically for Kate O’Flynn to perform. It is clear to see why McDowall favoured O’Flynn, she is simply marvellous, not least for her ability to memorise the very wordy pieces she performs (it baffles me how actors are able to do this!). While the pieces all explore overlapping themes, they are also extremely different and O’Flynn shows her outstanding range as an actress as she tackles them all with charm and wit. O’Flynn is magnetic to watch, for an actress to be able to perform a 45 minute monologue without any visuals, set or props, not even any movement around the stage and ensure the audience are captivated throughout is undoubtedly a huge achievement.
This is not the first time the third piece of the nights show, All of It, has been performed, it was in fact performed at The Royal Court Theatre in 2020, pre-pandemic. The other two poems were written during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. This is quite noticeable in that the first two pieces grapple with loneliness and a feeling of confinement, they present a feeling of claustrophobia not just in terms of physical space, but mental space too. It’s one of McDowall’s biggest strengths as a writer, that he manages to write such relatable characters, responding to the world around us and our collective fears but in such an interesting and unique way, often otherworldly.
Set design by Merle Hensel is effective throughout, and the space is transformed for each piece. In Northleigh, 1940 we see a 1940s home, most of the dialogue is delivered from an Anderson shelter, yet for the second, In Stereo, O’Flynn sits within a large room, mottled and green, decaying with mould and increasingly claustrophobic. In the last piece, the stage is pretty bare, O’Flynn illuminated in the darkness with just a microphone and small table. This is a clever and effective choice as it highlights the strengths of the writing and performance, allowing us to focus on the beauty of both, without any distraction.
All three poems by McDowall were wonderful to watch, although the concluding ‘All of It’ was certainly the strongest piece. This show potentially won’t be for everyone, due to its format and often experiential nature. This was certainly like no other show I have ever seen, but it is a show I am more than thankful that I have seen. McDowall’s writing makes the ordinary extraordinary, and O’Flynn delivers his words in one of the most powerful performances I have seen this year.
All of It by Alistair McDowall plays at Royal Court Theatre until Saturday 17th June 2023, tickets are available here – all of it - Royal Court (royalcourttheatre.com)
Photos by Manuel Harlan