'Alys, Always': Theater Review

Alys, Always Production Still 1 - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Helen Maybanks
Once is enough.

Joanne Froggatt ('Downton Abbey') plays a journalist who piggybacks on tragedy and celebrity culture to rise through the ranks in this stage adaptation of Harriet Lane's debut novel.

British author Harriet Lane offered an intriguing challenge to readers of her first novel, Alys, Always; namely, to engage with an anti-heroine who isn't at all interesting, whose path to success is decidedly humdrum, and whose "victims" are no more likable than she. If Lane succeeded (and the book was well-received) it's because she offered a modicum of shading to her dubious everywoman on the make, and some fun at the expense of London's entitled elite. 

But the frequent description of the novel as a "psychological thriller" is a stretch — there's nothing of any significance at stake, and the protagonist, Frances Thorpe, is no Tom Ripley or Camille Preaker. In adapting the story for the stage, writer Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl) and director Nicholas Hytner have their work cut out to make it impactful. And with its now wafer-thin characterizations and parochial, rather toothless social observation, the result — like its protagonist — is eerily bland and inconsequential.  

It's kicked off by tragedy, a car accident, involving a solitary vehicle on a country road. Before she dies, the driver — who conveniently announces herself as "Alys with a y" — is comforted by a passing motorist. Frances (Joanne Froggatt) appears sincerely affected by the incident; hereafter, she's only ever thinking of herself. 

The next day it's back to work as a sub-editor for the Books section of a Sunday newspaper, The Questioner. Dogsbody might be a better job description, since Frances spends more time fetching coffee and running errands than actually subbing copy; indeed, the character never works at her computer, leading to a credibility gap in the characterization and plotting that is symbolic of the whole piece.

Frances is a nervy, subservient, bitter woman, hating her life at the bottom of the media food chain, while deputy book editor Oliver (Simon Manyonda), a very young man who has been gifted his job because his dad is a famed journalist, swans about doing little but gossip, nurse his party hangovers and lap up luxury freebies.

Although Frances has been resistant to the request from Alys' family to meet, she cynically changes her tune when she learns that the dead woman was wife to Booker Prize-winning author Laurence Kyte (Robert Glenister). From that first meeting and a strategic lie that makes her integral to the family's attempt at closure, her sly, slow-burn incursion into the Kytes' rich and well-connected world begins. 

As in the novel, Frances serves as narrator of her Machiavellian rise, in which she voices an odd and sometimes kleptomaniac obsession with the Kytes' material life, and turns amenability and an aptitude for "good listening" into weapons. At work, just the suggestion that Frances is friends with the Kytes prompts book editor Mary (Sylvestra Le Touzel) to promote her; imagine what she'll gain if she becomes the next Mrs. Kyte? 

The material has plenty of contemporary targets — the media's prioritization of clicks over quality and networking over diligence, the nepotism that leads to buffoons like Oliver landing senior positions, the insularity of public relations, the personality crisis faced by the cosseted children of the rich and famous — and it's possible to see real-life figures in the DNA of the characters, whether novelists or diva-like journalists. 

However, none of this is revelatory, and Coxon fails to offer anything new or insightful, or even particularly funny, about today's societal and cultural malaise.

There's actually a fleeting reference to The Talented Mr Ripley, which is unfortunate, since this lacks the very things that made both Patricia Highsmith's novel and Anthony Minghella's consummate screen adaptation so effective — the deadly brilliance of the imposter, his creepily complete appropriation of identity, the class and sexual tension. Frances' manipulations are so slight, and so mundane, that there's no such frisson here. 

Froggatt, best known for her award-winning performance as maid Anna Bates on Downton Abbey, isn't helped by the writing while failing to make Frances a compelling or even convincing character. Glenister is OK as the self-obsessed writer, but it's left to newcomer Leah Gayer as Kyte's over-coddled daughter and Le Touzel as the shallow book editor to bring much needed humor and air into a surprisingly stuffy evening. 

Bob Crowley's minimalist set makes little effort to manifest the physical (and thereby social) environments that Frances is attempting to traverse. Hytner shouldn't simply rely on a London theater audience to appreciate the divide. 

Venue: The Bridge Theatre, London
Cast: Joanne Froggatt, Robert Glenister, Danny Ashok, Maddie Cutter, Joanna David, Leah Gayer, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Simon Manyonda, Jeff Rawle, Vineeta Rishi, Sue Wallace, Sam Woolf
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Playwright: Lucinda Coxon, adapted from the novel by Harriet Lane
Set designer: Bob Crowley
Costume designer: Christina Cunningham
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music: Grant Olding
Sound designer: Gareth Fry
Video designer: Luke Halls
Presented by The Bridge Theatre