(Written for Culture Wars)
So, here’s a quandary: how do you adapt something that has already been definitively adapted? Lucy Bailey and Nell Leyshon’s reversion of “Don’t Look Now” takes the bold step of eschewing changes made by Nicolas Roeg in his highly-thought-of 1973 film adaptation, and returning to Daphne du Maurier’s original short story.
The slow-burning first half is moodily effective and genuinely entertaining. John and Laura return to Venice, where they spent their honeymoon, to get over the death of their daughter Christine. Leyshon’s script reinstates Christine’s death being caused by meningitis, and not the shocking drowning of Roeg’s film. Set by Bailey in a gigantic copper box, with gorgeous lighting by Chris Davey, it’s a creepy, atmospheric world, with tables and other settings sliding queasily from one side of the stage to the other.
It isn’t, however, Venice. Of course, having large amounts of water on stage is a bloody hard thing to achieve. Here we have some lovely rippling reflections on the walls, and some undeniably pretty theatre rain. (Man, I love theatre rain. If you’re making a play that I’m going to review, add some theatre rain. I guarantee you a whole extra star on your star rating.) But without the constant eerie presence of the waterways, everything feels a little dry and safe. It becomes apparent why Roeg made his alteration to the way Christine died ? to recover from your child’s drowning by visiting a city built on waterways is a pleasing dramatic irony; how could John and Laura be so stupid to think that going there was a good idea? Next time, dudes, go to the Gobi Desert! The creeping dread of water for the characters is absent, and so the location, something utterly key to both original text and cinema adaptation, cannot be delivered.
The first half contains a brilliant performance by Susie Trayling as Laura, trying desperately hard to remain upbeat, whilst occasionally letting the facade break, particularly after meeting the weird psychic sisters who let her know of the ominous warnings of her dead child. Trayling’s Laura clings desperately, optimistically, to any thread of hope, and the second half misses her, as she returns to Britain to attend to the appendicitis of her son.
Simon Paisley Day, as John, has a trickier time. Stoic and stiff-upper-lipped in the first half, the cracking of his facade in the second half, as scripted, is more melodramatic and explicit. He is haunted by a child in a red coat, perhaps the ghost of his dead daughter, and beset by any number of Italian buffoons who occasionally slip into oblique pronouncements from the underworld. Day’s performance is a little fussy, and never quite manages to achieve either the sensitive breakdown of Trayling or the large-scale grandstanding that must surely have been a temptation. The second half suffers because John isn’t really the one we’re interested in in the first half. He’s a petty Englishman, more interested in saving face and being frustrated that none of the Italians will humour his stilted attempts to master their language, and as such the emotional core of the second half is absent.
Joanna McCallum and Susan Woolridge are quietly effective as the twin psychics, but don’t have a huge amount to do. The locals of Venice are very broadly drawn, with fun little sketches of a hotel butler and a rambunctious restauranteur seeming out of place when set against the moodiness of the main story. John’s psychic tormenting by the sinister Italians in his head late on in Act Two, however, feels a little xenophobic, and exposes the datedness of du Maurier’s text. This is compounded by the giggling, demonic little person, psychotically pleased with her hobby of murdering tourists, which raised my 21st Century political correctness hackles.
An interesting experiment, then. In the programme, it is stated that Bailey was looking to devise an original ghost story, but eventually settled on “Don’t Look Now”. Part of me wishes that Bailey and Leyshon’s obvious talents had been employed on that original story, if only to avoid the pitfalls of the burden of the film, the tinges of datedness and the difficulty of getting Venice across on stage.