A prolific playwright in the ’80s and ’90s, Stephen Poliakoff enjoyed such success over the past decade as a TV scribe/director (“Gideon’s Daughter”, “Perfect Strangers”) that he didn’t have time to create for the stage. This world premiere finds him revisiting familiar themes — history, memory, loss, the endless intrigue of London, the porous boundary between the real and the imagined — in a package that is, at its best, strangely compelling. Where we end up, however, is not nearly as intriguing as the path getting there, though the opportunity to see the wonderful Tracey Ullman back on the boards is a considerable bonus.
Play opens with dapper thirtysomething Richard (Tom Riley) discovering a well-dressed middle-aged woman lying on a London park bench, and realizing with a combination of shock and delight that it is his former school principal Miss Lambert (Ullman).
Instantly Ullman compels with her portrait of this composed, well spoken woman who is clearly holding onto a troubling secret. Richard, we discover, had learning difficulties and remembers Miss Lambert, and her school, as the central positive force in his young life. In flashbacks to daily assemblies we see Lambert and her two fellow teachers, Mr. Minkin (David Troughton) and Miss Summers (Sorcha Cusack) weave amazing stories — complete with props and sound effects — that encouraged pupils to imagine a world outside their experience and to respect and marvel at the past.
Improbably — but such is the spell wound by Poliakoff’s own production that we are encouraged to bear with what doesn’t feel entirely plausible — a meeting is arranged between Richard and his old friend and fellow student Julie (Sian Brooke) and the three teachers. In another intriguing but bizarre turn, Lambert’s chosen location is a sleek but anodyne bar in a shopping mall. Eventually, and fueled by vodka, the party turns into an all-nighter in Mr. Minkin’s cluttered apartment.
The teachers, now retired, are a bunch of charming eccentrics, but we are encouraged to wonder if there is something excessive, inappropriate or even scary about how much they seem to live through their past identities. Lambert, in particular, has developed the unusual habit of walking the streets of London after dark (hence hers and Richard’s initial meeting) and not going outside during the day. So — she’s a vampire?
Well, no, and however plausible the real reasons for her behavior are revealed to be, play’s outcome doesn’t match or justify the compelling weirdness of how we got there; the move from the supernatural to the psychological feels anti-climactic.
There are many pleasures along the way. Poliakoff has an unusual, angular eye for detail, and celebrates aspects of experience — in particular here, the transformational role that teachers can play on young lives — that often go unobserved. Ben and Max Ringham’s excellent sound design goes a long way to aiding movement between past and present. Amid strong supporting perfs, Riley in particular manages to create an engaging portrait of a troubled young man who is not everything he claims to be.
But the central delight here is Ullman, resplendent in Lez Brotherston’s elegant dresses, exuding warmth and composure when she appears in the past, and ever so slowly and unwillingly unraveling in her sad present.
By show’s end one doubts whether Poliakoff really managed to deliver what he envisioned for the play. As presented, it feels like a not-quite-finished thought, a half-remembered dream.