Frost licks at the corners of the windows and the bars of the electric heater onstage glow red-hot. It feels as if you could see your own breath in the auditorium. The play is Skylight, the latest addition to the Theatre Chipping Norton's stable of home-grown productions. Written by prolific British dramatist David Hare, previous incarnations have featured a raft of famous faces, among them Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan. Skylight is a complex drama that lends itself to an intimate theatre space and a small but talented cast. The creative team at Chipping Norton have both, and the resulting production is a captivating one.
The events of the play take place in the cramped flat of Kyra (Rosie Wyatt), a maths teacher at a struggling state school. A nondescript wintry evening of marking homework takes an unexpected turn as Kyra receives two visitors, figures from a past she has sought to bury: Edward (Roly Botha), a gawky gap year student, and later his father Tom (Louis Dempsey), a foppish restaurateur and Kyra's former lover. Kyra lived with the family while working in Tom's restaurants, only to cut ties when Alice, Tom's wife, discovered the affair.
Edward arrives, nervously, to confront Kyra about her sudden disappearance, lamenting the loss of his sister figure and unsure of what the future holds. Beanie-clad, rap records in hand, the character is played with zest and teenage angst by Roly Botha. But this initial exchange is only a preface to the main encounter between Tom and Kyra. Tom's wife Alice has recently lost a long and arduous battle with cancer, and Tom comes looking to resurrect his former relationship with Kyra.
It is an intensely emotional piece - Dempsey and Wyatt really capture the potent cocktail of feelings at such a reunion. Tom saunters about the flat, sweeping back his fringe in a breezy, peacocking display that fails to mask his insecurity, while Kyra is his more guarded, more cautious foil. There is a distinct uneasiness at play as both characters recognise familiar traits in the other, even after such a long time apart.
The flat itself, imaginatively brought to life by set designer Liz Cooke, becomes an arena for the pair's verbal sparring. Kyra is cooking pasta throughout, and every element of the meal preparation becomes a chance for one-upmanship, a minor battle in the overarching conflict. The trading of blows ranges from witty remarks to outbursts of residual anger and hurt, and the two leads are arguably at their best when tensions boil over. As cutlery clatters and exercise books are thrown to the floor, the auditorium almost seemed to crackle with anticipation.
Kyra and Tom are at odds politically as well as personally. Tom's
As male lead Dempsey puts it, the play "is about relationships, it's about the possibility or the impossibility of love... and about how difficult happiness is, even when you think you've achieved it". Tom and Kyra's encounter is clouded by doubt and uncertainty, as to whether the gulf between social opposites can be surmounted; whether a past love can be rekindled in a freezing bedsit; whether grief, guilt, and pride can finally be put to rest. Whatever the answers, the Theatre Chipping Norton's interpretation of this intimate and intricate play makes for compelling viewing.