The burst of applause did not mark the end of the performance. It might have been triggered by a potential false ending, but those who know David Hare’s The Vertical Hour are familiar with its tight, bookends construction. Still to come was another monologue and the scene that makes for symmetry. No; this was an outpouring of appreciation for the culmination of an intense forty-minute duologue and perhaps the need for emotional release.
a highly talented cast that rises to the challenges of Hare's writing with consummate professionalism
Given that just one scene is permitted so much time it should come as no surprise that by modern standards this is a long work, running to over two hours. It is also a deeply rewarding two-act play, complete with interval; and it seems an eternity since most of us have enjoyed that experience.
The Vertical Hour begins with a conversation between Yale professor Nadia Blye (Margo Henson) and her student, Dennis Dutton (James MacAuley) concerning a paper he had written. She had been a war correspondent who covered the 1990s Balkans conflict and went on to support the war in Iraq. This opening scene establishes her position which will face further examination later in the play. It ends abruptly when Dutton explains that he is obsessed with her and she sends him packing.
Cut to Nadia and her boyfriend Philip Lucas (Jack Kristiansen) on their way to visit his father Oliver Lucas (Hamilton Wilson) in Shropshire. She has not met him before but is warned that the retired doctor is a manipulative character, compulsive womaniser and, just as crucially, opposed to the war. The inevitable debates ensue and the dysfunctional relationship between Philip and his father is revealed. There are more unsavoury revelations about Oliver as Philip becomes convinced that his father is predictably trying to seduce Nadia, though she is not convinced. Nevertheless, they ultimately agree that the time has come to leave.
Cut again to a reflection of the opening scene. Nadia is this time in a tutorial with student Terri Scholes (Caitlin Cameron). Their discussion reveals that they have certain personal matters in common, whereupon Nadia feels encouraged to announce some major changes to her life.
The play’s plot is simple, but the writing with its prolonged interactions and impassioned discussions is far more complex. Creating characters of interest with credible histories who can sustain the arguments at both the political and personal levels is a major challenge. But this is a highly talented cast that rises to the challenges of Hare's writing with consummate professionalism; not ease, for this text is unrelenting in its demands and its intensity can be lost in a momentary lapse.
Dutton and Scholes carry conviction as students committed to their stance. Kristiansen shows Philip Lucas’ torment in knowing that he is probably making a huge mistake allowing Nadia anywhere near his father and has to battle to convince her that he is not the man he appears to be, while confronting his own issues with him. For his part, Wilson exudes the overwhelming charm and assuredness that he has allegedly used so many times in his life as a philanderer. (He also fully crosses his legs with an ease worthy of Bill Nighy who played the part in the 2006 Broadway premier; bound to impress the ladies.) Meanwhile, Henson unmistakably displays the toughness required for life in a war zone, be it in Serbia or academia, and the determination to stick to her guns. Yet under the moon and stars of the countryside she can reveal her softer and more reflective side.
As the opening in-house production since the lockdown, Vertical Hour proves the cultural importance of the Rialto Theatre to Brighton and the tremendous work done there by Roger Kaye in directing works such as this and in running an outstanding centre of community involvement, theatrical excellence and sound programming judgement. All of which makes it even more shameful that he was denied any money from the Arts Recovery Fund.