While in the course of reviewing one often ends up seeing plays seen before, it is less common to see a new piece of work twice in 6 months. All dramatic works, even established plays, go through a period of development during their lives but for new writing this development work is often carried out behind closed doors.
Not so Andrew Motion’s debut stage play Incoming. Premiered at the HighTide festival in May, presented again at the Latitude Festival in July, it now gets its third airing as part of Co-Producers The Poetry Trust’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.
Motion’s play looking at the impact of those trying to cope with the death of a loved one in Afghanistan showed considerable promise at its premiere. The tale of a grief-stricken widow slowly trying to make sense of her loss and to rebuild a life for both herself and her son genuinely moving. Through conversations she has with her dead husband, those conversations that often remain unsaid finally get resolved.
In a simple staging of packing cases and dust sheets in a small, hot studio in Halesworth, the sheer emotion was palpable – a draining experience.
Sadly, despite some work on both structure and script, on a second viewing, this time in a rehearsed reading format, it seems the production has moved backwards instead of forwards.
Stripped of a full dramatic presentation, Motion’s script is more exposed to examination. Where before the strong performances carried the audience with them, here we get more time to concentrate on the construction and it is more problematic. Motion’s script still manages to paint vivid pictures in the audience’s mind but without the supporting performances, the characterisation comes across as weak. For a couple desperately in love and torn apart in the most brutal of circumstances, there is little actual depth to that relationship – it is as if two artists are describing scenarios and backdrops rather than any deep insight into their motives, hopes and fears.
The deceased Danny in particular seems underwritten and his intellectual speech patterns at odds with a battle hardened soldier. His widow, Steph, is more drawn with more detail but somehow seems less emotionally devastated in this reading.
Motion has moved an encounter between father and son (Jack) to the middle of the piece rather than the previous somewhat false coda but, while it does seem more integrated, this move does destroy any ambiguity of the realness or imaginary state of Steph’s conversation with her husband. The piece is strong enough as a two-hander that the role of Jack could easily be cut without any great dramatic loss.
Penny Layden is still impressive as the distraught widow, despite the restraints of the reading format. Timon Greaves does as much as he can with the limited role of Jack but Christian Bradley’s Danny seems woefully staid with many lines lost even relatively close to the stage.
This is by no means a bad play and, as the premiere production showed, there is real potential here. Sometime first thoughts are best and the resulting changes have done little to drive the creative process forward.
Review originally written for The Public Reviews