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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Donmar Warehouse


  Richard Coyle and Jodhi May/ Ph: Johan Persson

Mark Haddon’s debut novel "The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time," written from the point of view of a 15-year-old teenager with Asperger’s, was rightly hailed as a brilliant novel about different ways of seeing. He followed it up with a second novel about chronic anxiety, a British TV drama about Down syndrome and now here he is with his debut play about a woman with bipolar disorder. Any fears that he might, in fact, be making his way through the alphabet of mental and physical disorders are not alleviated by Polar Bears, however, which is both dispassionate and bleak, and which feels primarily motivated by bipolar as a potential metaphor for the multifaceted nature of perception and reality.
Haddon’s set up is initially intriguing. The play begins with John (Richard Coyle) confessing to his brother-in-law Sandy (Paul Hilton) that he has killed his wife Kay (Jodhi May) who suffers from bipolar. He is giddy with terror and adrenaline, and the effect is both blackly absurd and shocking. Yet quickly the play shifts; we are with Kay in Oslo. Then it shifts again; John, a philosopher, is meeting Kay’s mother (Celia Imrie) and Sandy for the first time. Haddon jump cuts back and forth across time, continually disorienting our perspective with new scenes that contradict pre-established scenarios. Kay says she is a talented artist; later her mother Margaret says Kay can’t draw. Kay says as a child she discovered her father’s dead body hanging in the hall; Sandy later says he did.
Haddon also suggests some scenes are the products of complete delusion; a character called Jesus appears to Kay, and then later to John, taking him through the nature of putrefaction of a dead body. Combined, these scenes jolt and confuse (and throw the veracity of the first scene into question) but ultimately don’t work as a metaphor for anything much at all, since Haddon’s riffs on reality and imagination are incoherent and limited, neither psychologically consistent or theatrically expansive.
Haddon is much stronger at examining the impact on a family struggling to cope with someone who has bipolar. John, Margaret and Sandy appear locked in a battle for supremacy over Kay, each trying to prove that their love for her and their knowledge is the more powerful and intimate. Jamie Lloyd’s tense, eerily chilly production coaxes contrastingly colourful performances: Hilton cynical, cruel and aggressively bristly as Sandy; Coyle eagerly benign and desperately in love as John; Celia Imrie forbidding and controlling as Margaret.
Haddon is good with dialogue, too, picking up on the bland-sounding little ticks of everyday speech and often infusing them with a dry, offbeat wit. Yet he also has a tendency to stray into banality. And Kay remains intensely problematic. Jodhi May is well suited to this sort of role, but there is little she can do with a character who’s presented more as a cipher than as a living piece of flesh and blood. Her wild mood swings are depicted on stage, but never really felt. Without her providing an emotional focus, the emotional vocabulary of the play fails to grip. Lloyd places a glass wall at the back of the stage as though to suggest the separation bipolar suffers feel from the everyday world, but we, the audience, may as well be looking through it instead.


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