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The Theatreguide.London Review

Alys, Always
Bridge Theatre   February-March 2019

Lucinda Coxon's new play, adapted from the novel by Harriet Lane, manages to be thoroughly contemporary in its plot, setting and characterisations while still having an appealingly retro feel about it.

It's the kind of play they're not supposed to be writing anymore, but its old-fashioned quality actually feels fresh and original, and thoroughly entertaining.

The title character actually dies in the first scene, in an automobile accident. The play's real protagonist, Frances, is the first on the scene, who calls for an ambulance and gets to speak with Alys for a few moments before she dies.

That unplanned point of contact leads to Frances meeting Alys's family – husband and grown son and daughter – and being drawn into their family soap opera, to the extent of ending up in someone's bed.

Meanwhile, the husband is a famous novelist and Frances is a lowly dogsbody in a newspaper arts section, and her sudden connection to him raises her profile and status at work, and she starts getting writing assignments and raises and promotions.

The playwright and director Nicholas Hytner carefully retain a mystery and ambiguity about how much of what happens is being engineered and exploited by Frances and how much is just her passively accepting the rewards that come with others trying to exploit her.

Alys's twenty-something daughter is clearly a spoiled princess determined never to grow up and become responsible, and she latches on to Frances as an interim substitute for her mother, but that gives Frances further entry into the family. Frances's boss has an eye on protecting her own job by generating scoops like an exclusive interview with the novelist, and is happy to throw some rewards Frances's way to get it.

As Frances, Joanne Froggatt offers a very subtle and nuanced performance that skilfully walks a tightrope, keeping us unsure until quite late in the play how conscious and premeditated the character is in shaping her personal and professional advancement.

She is backed by equally ambiguous and appealing characterisations by Robert Glenister as the grieving husband who may not be quite as broken as he seems and Leah Gayer as the calculatedly dependent daughter.

The setting is not limited to a drawing room (though there are some scenes in an elegant country house) and the characters don't dress for dinner (though some might, if asked).

But Alys, Always is the best 1950s-style play written since, well, the 1950s, and I mean that as unqualified praise.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Alys Always - Bridge Theatre 2019