The Driver's Seat

Described as “a metaphysical shocker” on its release in 1970, The Driver's Seat was apparently author Muriel Sparks’ favourite amongst her own stories, in part thanks to the clarity of its present-tense realisation. In it, Spark tells the story of Lise, a woman in her early 30 who abandons life in an accountants’ office after 16 years, and deliberately reinvents herself as a garishly-dressed temptress travelling to some Mediterranean city to find “her type” of man.

Sansom’s choreography of his ensemble is strong: they move in and out of the light, always present on stage and yet not distracting from the rising tension as Lise’s death approaches.

However Spark was, above all else, the Queen of prolepsis – the “flash forward”: early on, she reveals that Lise is heading, seemingly deliberately, towards a violent death. This is not a whodunnit, howver; The Drivers Seat is a bracing, but nevertheless uncomfortable “whodunit” focused on alienation and control. So it’s a genuine pleasure to say that the National Theatre of Scotland’s Artistic Director Laurie Sansom – who has adapted the book and directs – has created an articulate and genuinely gripping drama which both enthrals and disturbs with equal force.

The events of Lise’s final day are repeatedly unveiled to us in the manner of a police procedural, complete with a blank clock-face given changing projected hands as we progress through the hours leading to her murder. Not that there is much regard for traditional realism; plain tables and chairs are utilised to represent aircraft and taxis, with the latter’s routes shown to us on a map being highlighted by one of the cast and projected on the rear wall. Ana Inés Jabares Pita’set, costumes and video projection – the latter fed from several video cameras used by members of the cast – are deceptively simple means through which to tell the story, best symbolised by the perspex crime wall through which Lise’s identity as victim is first displayed, and which later partly shields her actual murder from the audience’s eyes.

Not that Morven Christie’s Lise comes across as a victim; yes, she’s vulnerable, volatile and self-destructive, but she’s a dominating force all the same. Christie gives her a sense of a life half-lived that is engrossing, though she’s ably assisted by the rest of the cast – two women and four men – who between them play all the other people Lise encounters, as well as the police investigators dissecting and piecing together her final actions.

Sansom’s choreography of his ensemble is strong: they move in and out of the light, always present on stage and yet not distracting from the rising tension as Lise’s death approaches. Each also benefits from having their singular key character; Sheila Reid, for example, excels as the seemingly naive Mrs Fiedke, who retains possibly one of Spark’s funniest lines: “I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife.”

It’s a rare moment of release for the audience but, tinged as it is by the spectre of death, it nevertheless remains entirely appropriate, and a reflection of how so much of our fates is forever in the control of others. 

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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Performances

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The Blurb

“What are her thoughts? Who can tell?”

Adapted for the stage for the first time, The Driver’s Seat is one of renowned novelist Muriel Spark’s most gripping and disturbing books.

At the centre of this taut, darkly comic thriller is Lise, an enigmatic young woman travelling alone to an unnamed city, and searching for “the one”.

She seems keen to leave a trail, acquiring a brightly coloured outfit and an equally outlandish set of personas in her encounters with a series of extraordinary, bizarre and desperate individuals. But as the subject of her search eludes her, her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

All the while, in a police incident room, the hunt is on for a killer. As the tension builds and the twin narratives intertwine, The Driver’s Seat asks if we are ever truly in control of our own lives.

This World Premier production is adapted and directed by the National Theatre of Scotland’s Artistic Director Laurie Sansom (Director of The James Plays) and features a highly distinguished cast of Scottish and international performers, including Morven Christie who creates the central role of Lise.

The production is designed by Ana Inés Jabares Pita, overall winner of the 2013 Linbury Prize, the UK’s most prestigious award for stage design.

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