A brand new play by Lucinda Coxon, Alys, Always takes Harriet Lane’s psychological thriller about quiet, mousey Frances, subeditor on newspaper “The Questioner” (which has a header typeface suspiciously like The Guardian) and brings it to the Bridge Theatre.
Joanne Froggatt is on stage first, as Frances, re-living an accident in which she was involved on the way back from her parents’ house at Christmas. She lets an Audi overtake, then sees the aftermath of it skidding and crashing, talking to the occupant Alys (“with a y”) until the ambulance arrives. This one event will change Frances’ life completely, as she slowly moves out of the shadows.
She’s invisible in the office, and invisible in her looks – book review editor Mary (Sylvestra Le Touzel), editor Robin (Jeff Rawle), reviewer Oliver (Simon Manyonda) hardly regard her except in the spirit of “let Frances do it”. But when Laurence Kyte’s new book comes in, and his family tragedy becomes linked with Frances, her fortunes turn. She was the last to talk to his wife, Alys, and the family want to know more.
The Kytes are a well-heeled family of privilege. Writer dad (Robert Glenister), depressive son Teddy (Sam Woolf), drunken daughter Polly (Leah Gayer). Polly, emotionally unstable and selfish, senses a friend of sorts, the kind you can unload yourself upon. Frances starts to take what she can back, a lipstick, some shoes, things that “won’t be missed”.
Just like Eve in All About Eve, this new friend, quiet and helpful, starts to ingratiate herself into the lives of this family she knew nothing about, and a slow and subtle physical transformation starts to take place: her hair, her clothes. The daughter, then the father, come to rely on her and trust her. The family friend (Joanna David), too, who has known Laurence since he was a boy, even before Alys. Even the son comes to like her.
In the office Mary, efficient and officious, starts to favour Frances when she senses a story opportunity, and pushes Oliver, too sure of himself, too cocky, (he”parks on Pratt Street”) out. Frances becomes as indispensible here at The Questioner as she does at the Kytes’ London and country homes, reading up about the garden Alys loved, using her recipes, rifling through her personal and intimate belongings.
“The sense of possibility” from one little white lie. Getting Laurence to cry at Robin’s request is easy, and staying when he asks her to is easier. But Frances is a coiled spring under her calm exterior; a “cashmere” present doesn’t look good when it is only 5% against Alys’ posh pashmina; her parents love her sister’s “Prosecco flavoured crisps”.
This is a slow-burning thriller with tinges of black comedy, where we never know what Frances will do next, and yet are still appalled by her behaviour and her opportunism while willing her on all the same.
A very clever set by Bob Crowley backed by projections designed by Luke Halls to give a sense of place uses the Bridge’s thrust stage to great advantage, with scene changes achieved very quickly and effectively (although from a side seat on Gallery 3 I didn’t quite get the full sense of the video).
Nicholas Hytner directs, and he’s opened out this play yet kept it so tight that even the mis-steps (one key scene in the dark, scenes with Frances’ parents, and the crash itself) are easily overlooked in favour of the scenes which work well to keep the twists and turns moving.
Alys, Always continues at the Bridge Theatre until the 30th March, More details at https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/alys-always/.