4000 Miles – Chichester Festival Theatre

4000 Miles - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

One of the major theatre casualties of the pandemic, Matthew Warchus’s revival of Amy Herzog’s 2011 play 4000 Miles was scheduled for April 2020 at the Old Vic. Tickets had sold in droves for the promised pairing of Dame Eileen Atkins and the hugely anticipated UK stage debut of Timothée Chalamet. But alas it was not to be, the Old Vic held on for more than two years hoping the production would form part of its reopening season but the huge success of Dune has taken Chalamet off to film part two and the theatre finally admitted defeat, refunding ticketholders and cancelling the performance entirely. But that isn’t quite the end of the story and Chichester Festival Theatre has given the show a new home as part of its Festival 2023 season with Richard Eyre now directing and Atkins attached. What this revival of 4000 Miles has lost in Hollywood glamour, it more than makes up for in the intimate immediacy of this new version staged in the Minerva space which is considerably smaller than the Old Vic. So what exactly is London missing out on?

Herzog’s play, first performed off-Broadway, is a lean piece and like a lot of modern US drama is rather spare in its construction, running at a tidy 95-minutes without interval. There is a muscularity in Herzog’s writing that takes some adjustment, based on an ordinary conversation style and the things that people say to each other in passing, rather than the more stagey revelations and reckonings that ordinarily shape family drama. This can make it hard for an audience to feel gripped by a story that slowly evolves rather than being more obviously directive. Instead, 4000 Miles has particularity, each word chosen with purpose even when it appears to be inconsequential, and truths emerge through lots of different conversations, each revealing a little more about why Leo has suddenly appeared at his grandmother’s door in the middle of the night having cycled thousands of miles from home.

This is a snapshot in time, several weeks in which the pair live together, and Herzog makes it clear that there are detailed and complex aspect to both of their lives before the action begins which continue beyond the end of the play. Although both have been heard, nothing is neatly resolved, the characters must go on living with what they have done and in circumstances that have not been materially altered by the events of this period. Once the audience accepts the parameters of Herzog’s drama, there is much to mine within it.

The realisation may take a while to come but 4000 Miles is about two people who need one another but barely acknowledge it in their determined but also semi-enforced independence. Vera lives alone in an apartment block in Manhatten, a spacious place with two bedrooms and, it is hinted, a view downtown where the Twin Towers used to be. Her husband died a few years before and her main contact with the outside world are phone calls with an absent daughter and the neighbour opposite of equivalent age, as well as attending the funerals of her octogenarian friendship group. Leo meanwhile is actively separating himself from his closest relatives following an incident at the family home a few months before and an accident involving his cycling companion, leaving him emotionally stranded and seeking a non-judgmental port in which to ride out whatever storm afflicts him. Eyre’s production for Chichester Festival Theatre is effective at revealing this mutual need that both Vera and Leo treat incredibly casually, refusing to accept or recognise its full importance to them.

There is some mileage in the connection between alternate generations and while Leo and Vera report a troubled relationships with Leo’s mother who stands between them quite decisively without ever appearing in the play, grandmother and grandson share a political interest in Cuba and communist priniciples – not ideas that the writer elaborates in the more lifelike as-it-happens nature of 4000 Miles, but Eyre’s approach emphasises the unforced commonalities between the generations here, better able to understand and accept one another, perhaps even facing the same demons or wanting the same things from the world. Herzog is not the only writer to consider the grandparent-grandchild connection in a contentious parent-child scenario, but there is an unspoken and unexplained ease between Leo and Vera that makes this an interesting pairing and allows the truthful conversations to happen.

These emerge fairly naturally from their dialogue, although it is Leo who is more likely to be spontaneously affectionate and to recognise the value of sporadic physical contact in creating and maintaining the intimacy between them, one that is considerably expanded by shared experience of grief for different people that gives them common ground as well as a shared language during their time together in which they are euphemistic about their true feelings or avoid confronting the depths of them in front of the other. So 4000 Miles includes much that is unsaid, which can be a frustrating experience but it is all there under the surface of Herzog’s play which essentially dramatises a transitory state for its protagonists in which something will emerge for them both by the end of their time together, not substantially altering their lives and the essential hurts and guilt will remain, but a recalibration occurs that leaves them in a slightly altered state.

Eyre’s production is a little fussy in places, meticulously changing tiny details in the set to indicate time passing between scenes, shifting magazines and coffee cups or plumping cushions that slightly break the tension and the mood as a group of visible stage managers appear in the gloom. Otherwise this has a fairly decent pace, sagging only slightly when Atkins’s Vera is absent, the other duologues – with Leo’s girlfriend Bec and date Amanda – not quite reaching the same level of meaning. This is largely in Herzog’s writing rather than the production choices because the younger female characters are just there to reflect on Leo and feed the audience greater context about his life and choices rather than complete creations in their own right, making it harder for the audience to believe they continue to exist beyond the moment in this drama. They are not devoid of purpose though, and Elizabeth Chu’s Amanda is a particularly enjoyable cameo in a scene that bursts with liveliness and personality with Chu bringing real humour to her scene in a production that is often snarky rather than hilarious. But Amanda’s character isn’t much more than this and Bec (Nell Barlow) is little more purposeful, a reason for Leo to feel worse about himself and more isolated as their relationships strains.

The real treat here is Atkins’s wide-ranging masterclass performance as Vera, and this is what London has missed out on by letting this production go. Her Vera is so skillfully drawn and layered with the challenges of age and irascibility that make both communication and connection a real and genuine challenge for her, making physical contact with the person in front of her so difficult. Atkins is particularly good at portraying Vera’s memory loss and continual scrambling for the words she cannot find, having to replace them with indefinite substitutes. Atkins makes this feel so natural and exposing at the same time, the audience can feel her character’s brain actively searching and grasping as well as her growing exasperation with herself. Alongside the physical performance which is so precise, Atkins slowly thaws Vera’s detached exterior, revealing the soft spot for her grandson and the increasing reliance on his presence, something she gets used to very quickly. And while she may complain about his cleanliness and need for money, she checks on him while he is sleeping several times, revealing a maternal care and concern that she would never openly admit.

Atkins’s Vera is also a woman who has lived, dropping hints throughout about a bigger, harder, more colourful life before with two husbands, at least one of whom was a notorious philanderer, and a passionate love affair with a man she refuses to name. The added complexity here that Atkins finds is that Vera knows that all of this life is a memory, that the best is behind her – perhaps why she is so keen to have Leo around to live youth again through him – and it adds a melancholy to the performance that is very touching. Vera is tough on the surface, calmly batting away the intrusion of others with plenty of caustic one-liners, but Leo finds her alone and lonely, and his presence makes her realise that, quietly encouraging him to stay longer. It is a performance that lifts the play and makes its messages feel more universal.

Sebastian Croft as Leo is not an easy character to empathise with for quite different reasons, and while there are similar degrees of suffering, Leo has little remorse for some of the things that he has done or any recognition that he might have acted inappropriately. Leo has a tendency to blame others for his failings, often his mother, sometimes the short-sightedness of society itself for not condoning his behaviour, so it can be difficult for the character to gain enough traction to carry scenes without Vera, particularly when he is trying to convince the women he is involved with to accept his perspective and believe in his questionable motives.

Croft does find those moments of empathy and sadness in which Leo recognises that he is trapped and unable to go home or move forward until he confronts the things he has done more fully, but it never makes him entirely redeemable. There is a sense of confusion in Leo’s behaviour that does come through in Croft’s performance of a young man living without consequence and never entirely acknowledging the effect he has on others so there is a process of growing up to do within the play. And although that is by no means complete at the end of the 4000 Miles, Croft does develop the character towards taking charge of himself and who he needs to be.

There are advantages to relocating this production to Chichester, to a space where a greater intimacy is possible between audience and characters separated by only a few meters and a much smaller playing area than is possible in the Old Vic where it would have required a bit more work to project to a three-tiered auditorium. But Eyre has found that connection here in a realistic staging designed by Peter McKintosh that fills the platform with bookcases, creating an intellectual environment for Vera and Leo to share their views while also giving them a stable, welcoming room in which the older, established and more experienced figure can help to coax a younger relative through the first major crisis of their life. Will Leo end up like Vera? Maybe, but Herzog suggest that is not necessarily the worst thing that could happen, and with Atkins on excellent form, it is a sentiment that the audience can share. 4000 Miles perhaps isn’t a modern classic and the play has its problems but there is enough in this production and the performances to keep the audience watching.

4000 Miles is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 10 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


About Maryam Philpott

This site takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over a thousand shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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