I remember the exact moment I realised the National Theatre was brilliant. I was on my way to the BFI next door to watch The Spy Who Loved Me during their Bond season and I’d stopped at EAT just along the Southbank for a cup of tea to take with me, but when I finally got to the counter they’d run out! It was 4pm on a Saturday afternoon in Britain how could anyone have possibly run out of tea! I was about to abjectly enter the cinema when I remembered the NT café where I was promptly sold one cup of English breakfast and I tootled off to enjoy Roger Moore’s finest hour. That day the NT rescued me.
Of course I already knew the NT was great and over the years I’ve enjoyed all it has to offer. I’ve seen great actors in the making, including a pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch in Rattigan’s After the Dance and the hugely underrated Alex Jennings in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. I’ve been to new plays by Alan Bennett, I’ve listen to Sunday jazz, seen exhibitions and used the open space to meet friends. And now there’s the chance to sit in the front few rows and enjoy its summer plays for just £12.
Strange Interlude is set in early twentieth-century America and is the story of Nina, who at the start of the play has lost the man she wanted to marry in the First World War. In her grief and self-destruction she is persuaded to marry someone else and the play examines her relationship with five men across the years – her father, her husband, her lover, her son and a faithful admirer – all substitutes for the lost pilot, Gordon. Initially this was a hard play to like, the characters voice their inner thoughts in asides to the audience before resuming conversation, which seeemed very mannered and the first scene felt like a clunky melodrama. But after a while you begin to get caught up in the drama and the, mostly, fantastic performances. The always excellent Anne Marie Duff was equally vulnerable and beguiling as Nina clearly able to hold these men in her thrall. Good stuff too from Darren Pettie as her lover Darrell and Charles Edwards as the admirer Marsden. The only duff note is Jason Watkins as Nina’s husband, a bizarrely zany take which lacked any dimension – especially noticeable when everyone else is acting their socks off.
The most impressive thing here though is the amazing set design that rotated to become a stuffy nineteenth-century-inspired study, a breezy 20s beach house and an austere 40s Art Deco Park Avenue flat, reflecting Nina’s changing moods. Then you will be stunned as the houses turn into the deck of a ship, and for the final scene a jetty. Not enough prominence is given to set designers but there are some amazing things being done in the West End at the moment and Soutra Gilmour for the NT deserves some recognition for this one. This isn’t an easy play but bear with it and there are great rewards – and as part of the £12 Travelex season, you can afford to risk it.
Strange Interlude is part of the National Theatre’s £12 Travelex Season and runs at the Lyttelton Theatre until 1st September.