Kyra Hollis, an overworked teacher from a rougher than average state school comes home to her flat with a stack of books to mark. Over the course of a freezing night in her tiny flat, she will be visited by not one, but two, figures from her past – Tom, a wealthy self-made man and her former lover, and Edward, his teenage son. This elegantly simple set-up becomes, in the hands of writer David Hare and director Stephen Daldry, increasingly complex and compelling, and manages to challenge the pre-conceptions of its audience as well as the choices of its characters.
Leading man Bill Nighy has played the role of Tom Sergeant before, in a 1997 West End production, and it seems that if anything, he has grown into the role, his lined features and long limbs contrasting with the petite and doll-like figure of Mulligan. He represents Tom’s emotional repression perfectly –bluff arrogance breaking down just enough to earn the audience’s sympathy before the façade is hastily re-erected. A character who could have been deeply unlikeable is, in Nighy’s hands, made far less easy to categorise. The audience might not agree with Tom about much – or anything – but he charms us, and it is easy to understand why Kyra was – and is – so drawn to him.
In contrast to the experience of Nighy, Skylight is Carey Mulligan’s West End debut. From the outset she portrays Kyra with delicacy and capability, but it is in the play’s second act, when Kyra’s restraint is stripped away to reveal the tougher and less compromising emotions beneath that we see Mulligan’s undeniable talent really shine through.
Nighy and Mulligan may be the big-ticket names, but there’s also a winning performance from Matthew Beard as Tom’s son, which perfectly captures the lanky awkwardness characteristic of boys in their late teens. His anxious pretention plays perfectly against Mulligan’s amused fondness, and his manner and mannerisms echo Nighy’s in a realistically familial way.
Skylight is a love story, but like all really compelling love stories, it is so much more besides. It is an examination of the relative merits of vocation and self-interest, slumming it and social-climbing, liberalism and conservatism. The play was first performed in 1995, but, were it not for some telling details – Edward’s Walkman, the flat’s tiny gas heater – it could just as easily be taking place in the present day. It is a sign of Hare’s consummate skill as a playwright that he has penned a work which not only continues to be of immediate interest, but perhaps has become even more relevant in the seventeen years since it was last on the West End.