London theater: 'Nightfall' at the Bridge Theatre: Missed opportunity, just another boring family drama

(Left to right:) Ophelia Lovibond, Claire Skinner, Sion Daniel Young, and Ukweli Roach in "Nightfall," at the Bridge Theatre, London.

In a lovely green park, near London Bridge and the mighty Tower of London, is a brand new gorgeous theater called The Bridge. The snazzy lobby has a restaurant and bar, and the seating inside is spacious. The only drawback is the play currently on the stage.

Playwright and novelist Barney Norris seems to be, judging by Nightfall and by his program notes, an old-fashioned young guy whose taste in poetry runs to Thomas Hardy. I'm an American critic visiting London, and this production was my introduction to his work.

Nightfall purports to be about the difficulties of traditional farming in contemporary England, where maintaining the life and the land as they have been maintained for generations is no longer financially viable. (Coincidentally, I had just read an excellent article called “Wild and Woolly” in the May issue of Smithsonian about the current debate about sheep farming in Britain, which makes the issues far more vivid.) 

What might have been an interesting and timely drama with a substantial subject devolves into merely another dysfunctional family drama, filled with unsympathetic and charmless characters who speechify without much style or texture to the language. Which is to say, it’s often boring.

The appalling, guilt-tripping mother (Claire Skinner, who looks far too stylish and groomed to be a working farmer), still devoted to her late husband, who was, by all hints dropped, a bully and a dog-shooting lout, tries to run her grown children’s lives. Her son Ryan (Sion Daniel Young) tries desperately, with various lame-brained schemes, to keep the farm afloat; his best friend since childhood, Pete (Ukweli Roach), went to prison in Ryan’s place and is in love with Ryan’s sister Lou (Ophelia Lovibond).

The director, Laurie Sansom, keeps each of the four characters at his/her own stage station, all quite distant from one another, trying to fill up the enormous stage.  Mostly they do what characters onstage always do when they have nothing actually to do: pour endless drinks and fake-dance to recorded music.

Nightfall’s title suggests what is called in the U.K. “direction of travel”; with massive debt and a huge oil pipeline blighting the landscape, the bucolic day is done.

Nightfall. Through May 26 at the Bridge Theatre, London.