James Norton is rather ubiquitous at the moment and there hasn’t been a single week of 2016 that he hasn’t been on TV either in War & Peace, Happy Valley and currently Granchester. But each of these performances couldn’t be more different from one another – an existentially challenged Russian prince, a psychotic prisoner vowing revenge on an enemy-policewoman and a crime-solving vicar in 1950s Cambridgeshire. Now Norton returns to the London stage with yet another persona in a revival of Tracy Letts’s play Bug alongside Kate Fleetwood and directed by Simon Evans at Found 111, London’s trendiest new fringe space on Charing Cross Road, with its press night on Tuesday (29th March).
Bug is set in a cheap motel somewhere in Oklahoma in high summer. Agnes is hiding from her husband Jerry who was recently released from prison and desperate to track her down. One day the mysterious but sweet Peter appears and forms an attachment to Agnes which quickly takes hold as she learns of his difficult past in the army and his escape. As the two trade secrets Peter, who fears he’s being watched, finds insect bites on his body and as the infestation increases the lines between reality and delusion become increasingly blurred as Agnes is drawn into his fears.
On one level, Bug is about loneliness and tells the story of two strangers, two lost people who find a kind of solace and safety in each other. Both have been lonely, by choice, for a long time and are unexpectedly drawn to some quality in the other. What is so fascinating about Letts’s play is that information about the characters and where their assignation is leading is allowed to unravel slowly, so that details are teased out. These are natural feeling conversations in which these strangers are unsurprisingly suspicious of each other and reticent about discussing their lives, yet have a need to confide in each other.
Director Simon Evans allows the palpable tension to build slowly so that even by the interval you’re still not entirely clear where these characters are going but finding it nonetheless compelling. If you don’t know the story (as I didn’t) then the direction it takes may surprise you and the more domestic feel of Act One becomes something considerably darker after the interval, and not at all in the way you might expect from this initial set-up. It has an age rating of 12+ but even that’s possibly too low for some of the themes discussed here including casual addictions to drink and drugs, domestic abuse and mental illness. Act Two also contains some astonishing violence that up close is pretty horrifying but is a necessary part of the unfolding action and adds considerably to our insight into the characters.
The intimacy of Found 111 works well for them as the audience take their seats on all sides around Agnes’s motel room and almost unnervingly close to the actors so that you feel that you’re in their lives, while actively adding to Peter’s growing paranoia that he’s being watched. Designer Ben Stones has used the tiny space well having the audience form the walls of the room. Although set near enough in the modern day everything looks a couple of decades out of date, adding to the ‘seedy’ feel the production needs. Instantly you sense the characters are leading inconsequential and shabby lives in this claustrophobic little room that adds so much to the tension. Richard Howell’s lighting is also very effective at adding to the atmosphere and intensity of key moments.
The central characters, Agnes and Peter, are really the only ones with any depth and are on stage for almost the entire show so it’s vital that this connection is credible and engaging. Norton and Fleetwood absolutely crackle together as the protagonists and it’s fascinating to see the tone of their relationship shift and twist as they get to know each other, and like a great Tennessee Williams drama the muggy weather is brilliantly reflected in the emotional heat between them.
As the older woman Agnes has an almost maternal response to Peter, drawn to his little-boy-lost simplicity in the early scenes. We learn that her own child, with husband Jerry, was abducted many years before and the case never resolved, so her willingness to offer Peter a place to stay and a shoulder to cry on makes sense as part of her loss. Fleetwood brings to Agnes a brittle strength that allows her to take control at times, but also a softness that succumbs to Peter’s direction. She can push her ex-husband away but cannot refuse the younger man, and we see her replace addictions to drink and drugs – her only method of coping with the despair of her life – with belief in Peter, so as the action plays out the way in which Agnes slowly unfurls and then shrivels is fascinating to watch, and it is the exposure of this inner darkness that makes Fleetwood such an interesting stage actress.
Peter, on the other hand, begins as an American archetype, the lonely abstinent bachelor who has shut himself off from the world, a “lone wolf” with no ties. Reminiscent of James Dean in East of Eden and Giant, Peter is an educated young man but with something unreachable inside him, an emptiness that Agnes is clearly drawn to. Norton too is excellent at slowly revealing the character to us, the shy sweetness seemingly explained by early revelations of war in the Gulf, but becoming considerably more intense and frenzied as his theories about the bugs begin to take control. At times, Norton is even terrifying to watch as Peter becomes a greater and greater threat to himself, which testament to his skill as an actor remains sympathetic and pitiable, even at its most shocking.
The other characters are less well drawn which is a problem with the play rather than the performances, and seem to only exist to ‘explain’ bits of the action. They pop in and out pretty quickly so the audience has no real chance to understand how much of Agnes’s version is even true, and it would have been interesting to learn more about her ex-husband Jerry. Alec Newman at least gives Jerry a bit of a temper and a sense of entitlement in his limited stage time, while Daisy Lewis is all hot-pants and attitude as Agnes’s friend R C.
This is a play of two quite different halves, and as the domestic intimacy of the first gives way to a much stranger second, it may not be to everyone’s taste but there’s no doubting the power of Norton and Fleetwood throughout. This is not a cheap night at the theatre, all tickets are now £45 and seating is unrestricted so it is pot luck. Like most fringe venues doors don’t open until 5-10 minutes before showtime and at the preview I attended a queue had formed all the way around the two-room bar by 7.10pm – I’d never seen anything like it but such is the power of the latest hot-property actor. Bug is intense, intriguing and shocking and this may be early in the run but Norton and Fleetwood are already at the top of their game and you’ll definitely be talking about this all the way home.
Bug is at Found 111 a pop-up venue on Charing Cross Road in the old Central St Martin’s Building. Accessibility is restricted and there are several flights of stairs to climb so do check with the theatre before buying tickets. The play runs until 7th May and tickets are sold by the Soho Theatre.
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