Stef Smith’s Nora: A Doll’s House, a response to Ibsen’s classic, had its nicely timed opening at Manchester’s Royal Exchange on International Women’s Day. Ibsen used to deny he had intended to write a feminist play but nothing trumps A Doll’s House (1879) in its scrutiny of a woman trapped within an oppressive marriage. Smith’s ingenious play, first performed in 2019, imagines three Noras, each inhabiting a different moment in time. The Nora of 1918 is gracefully got up in a long cream coat with a fur collar and is played with decorous charm by Kirsty Rider. The Nora of 1968 wears an unbecoming, shorter blue coat and is strikingly played by Jodie McNee who shows what it is to feel physically trapped, coiling in on herself like a stowaway within her own body. The Nora of 2018 is played with unhappy glamour by Yusra Warsama in a flowingly loose turquoise wrap but is as trapped as her predecessors in this eternal (we pray not too eternal) triangle.
Amanda Stoodley’s set looks like a bistro, with occasional tables covered in lace cloths, and brittle wooden chairs. It begins with the Noras encircling the stage in a wintry rush, burdened with Christmas shopping. The modern Nora has grabbed a tiny, cut-price Christmas tree to take home. Smith skilfully portions out speech between them, their narrative is shared. For each woman, money is an issue and Smith contributes to Ibsen’s understanding of how Norah’s lack of economic independence is partly responsible for the instability of her marriage. She is good, too, on secrets and the difficulty women sometimes face in telling each other how they actually feel. And she has a fine sense of detail. She describes, in the household of each Nora, the pervasive scent of lavender and its bid for calm.
A single actor plays Thomas, the husband. William Ash rises – or sinks – excellently to the challenge. He is disagreeably plausible no matter the century in which he finds himself. Like many a tyrant, he believes himself kind but is tiresomely condescending and with a short fuse. Daniel, Nora’s old flame, about to be extinguished forever, is played with intensity by Naeem Hayat and Andrew Sheridan is superb as blackmailing Nathan – a pale, hunted fellow who reminds us that predators sometimes double as prey. But for all its elegant intelligence, the contrivance of the play makes it impossible to adhere to any moment in time – context barely exists. Director Bryony Shanahan does her best to compensate with movement – as if, with so much going on, there is no need to settle in any place or time. At one point, the Noras dance like crazed fish on hooks to distract Thomas from reading the letter that might prove their doom (or salvation). But the play remains more a diagram than a furnished painting and while it is not fair to penalise Smith for not being Ibsen, one can see A Doll’s House any number of times and continue to feel the mounting foreboding Ibsen orchestrated. Here, there is strain from the start but no incremental building of tension. Foreboding is replaced by the empty peril of the foregone conclusion. You know what the outcome will be and the doll’s house becomes a waiting room.
There is no such predictability to The Key Workers Cycle, a north London community-based project at the Almeida. These animated, heartwarming new pieces, envisaged as modern-day mystery plays, were commissioned during the pandemic and honour the unhonoured who kept – and keep – things going: teachers, rubbish collectors, midwives and so on. In one sense, it feels peculiar to be focusing on lockdowns precisely at the moment that coronavirus is being horrifyingly upstaged in our minds by the war in Ukraine. But might it be possible cautiously to celebrate the sense that, even though coronavirus is, alas, far from a thing of the past, the world these plays describe feels bizarrely close to being dated?
I saw the cycle’s first tranche of three (there are nine plays all together). The first is Assembly: The Teachers’ Play, written by Sonali Bhattacharyya, a fresh, exuberant reminder of the chaos the pandemic caused in schools, splendidly directed by Kate Golledge. Josh Elliott’s The Full Works: The Funeral Directors’ Play is a fantastically weird, funny, macabre piece, tremendously acted by Chima Akpa, Jason Barnett and Bill Milner. It involves a personable corpse who lets us into his thoughts as he receives a close shave in the funeral parlour. There is wonderful direction by Emily Ling Williams. In Face the Music: The Social Care Workers’ Play, an astonishing lineup of older actors (from the company Well-Versed, part of the community arts organisation All Change) brings the house down – the oldest actor, the phenomenal Eula Harrison, is 96. They are moving, courageous and memorable – emphasising the importance of kindness, dreaming, dancing and the mutual care that helps us survive. Towards the end, Daphne Chamberlain tells us charmingly how she thinks of the ocean to cheer herself up and asserts that whenever she brings it vividly to mind, it is every bit as real as north London’s Balls Pond Road.
There is a moment in Maria Friedman’s Legacy, a showcasing of musical numbers in celebration of Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Hamlisch and Michel Legrand, when she kicks off her high silver heels and leaves them by the piano. “They’re going off and they’re staying off,” she declares, like a Cinderella in reverse. “You’re in my home now,” she adds. But being a reverse Cinderella is risky – even when you are as charming as Friedman. Congratulating yourself on having been repeatedly invited to the ball does nothing to safeguard the present. Sondheim was a master of nostalgia, but this self-serving nostalgia-fest is too cosy by half. Friedman performs Broadway Baby, within the context of a decades-old triumph in which she wowed Sondheim himself. She tells us she learned to go “into the lyric” as a safe place to be. And while we can revel with her in the music’s slow stealth, the lyrics now seem neither here nor there.
The show is saved by the young talent she has recruited. Friedman’s son, Alfie, performs Sondheim’s Franklin Shepard, Inc with adrenalised brilliance and Desdemona Cathabel, an Indonesian student at the Royal Academy, sings The Miller’s Son beautifully. And there are moments in which Friedman reminds us of the verve that made her name, especially when she sings one of Hamlisch’s greatest hits and shows us how to make something of Nothing.
Star ratings (out of five)
Nora: A Doll’s House ★★★
The Key Workers Cycle ★★★★
Nora: A Doll’s House is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 2 April
Legacy is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 17 April