So Skylight is this summer’s big film-star vehicle for Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, making her West End debut, as former lovers reunited for one evening in a grotty flat in north London while Kyra cooks spaghetti. At a glance you may think them an unlikely casting choice, even inappropriate given the 35 years between them, but give this a chance and you’ll find yourself fully believing in their relationship.
Kyra used to work for Tom in a restaurant he owned with his wife. She lived with them for six years whilst conducting an affair with him for which neither feels any remorse, and when his wife found out Kyra left without explanation. Since then the wife has died and Tom has finally tracked Kyra down to find out why she bolted and whether there’s a chance at reconciliation. But both of them have changed, and during the course of one evening at her flat they confront their shared past and whether they can breach the vast gulf now between them.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this duel between the characters is that this gulf exists almost entirely as a physical distance between the actors. This is an interesting decision by director Stephen Daldry showing two people who never get close to one another despite the intimacy of their conversation and their earlier relationship. They don’t just sit on opposite sides of the table but, for much of the play, on opposite sides of the room. Far from making it less plausible, it reinforces how different they now are and how much they would have to overcome to be reunited. This also adds far greater significance and poignancy to the few moments when they are physically close.
Bill Nighy is, of course, incredible as the suave and boisterous Tom, a role he has played in an earlier iteration. His performance is large and full of energy as he prowls the stage trying to figure out Kyra’s situation. He’s a man who’s done very well for himself in the restaurant business and become used to a style of living, which rankles with Kyra’s new found social conscience. Nighy’s layered performance is particularly adept at the rapid chances of mood and pace, flipping in a second from contempt for Kyra’s attitudes to painful remembrance of their shared history, and it is in these moments that you see his skill in conveying a man deeply affected by his life choices.
Carey Mulligan’s Kyra is a perfect contrast to the more exuberant Nighy, playing it small and contained, emphasising her control and determination, avoiding confrontation. It is easy to understand why she chose to run away from Tom and not deal with the consequences of their affair. But this adds the more power to the moment she really does lose control, first with anger at Tom’s patronising attitude, and then in a tender emotional surrender that closes the first act. By living in a level of discomfort Kyra is punishing herself for her earlier indiscretion and the guilt she feels towards Tom’s wife, but in Mulligan’s complex performance you see her not quite realising this and filling her time with social crusades instead.
The interplay between the two of them is really first rate, battling for control and the last word. Their stories are unfolded to the audience before being torn down; Kyra accusing him of romanticising the past while Tom retorts with attacks on her conscience. These are two people, once so close and with so much to say, now unable to reconcile the changed other before them. At times it’s hard to escape Hare’s polemic, and the views the characters express can seem more of a playwright’s rant than a natural conversation, but this doesn’t tarnish a fantastic revival. Whether Tom and Kyra manage to return to the past and rekindle their relationship, I’ll leave you to find out, and you really should! Nigh and Mulligan’s gripping performances are well worth the visit, but book an Italian restaurant afterwards- you’ll want to eat spaghetti!
Skylight is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 23 August 2014. If not sold out, tickets start at £22.25 but have been cheaper on Last Minute. Otherwise it will also be broadcast to cinemas on 17 July via NT Live.