Nocturnal @ Gate Theatre, London

cast list
Matthew Dunster, Paul Hunter, Amanda Lawrence, Justine Mitchell, Justin Salinger

directed by
Lyndsey Turner
Juan Mayorga’s Nocturnal tells the story of two couples who live in a pokey block of flats in a unnamed grey city.

The first anonymous couple, known only as Tall Man and Tall Woman, are well educated and well read, their apartment full of books.

Tall man, we learn in the first five minutes, works nights, Tall Woman is a translator. The pair, played by Justine Mitchell and Justin Salinger, are good looking and confident, with a happy marriage, although a little short of money.

The second couple, Short Man and Short Woman, seem awkward and odd in comparison and to have little in common with their neighbours. He has an obsessive, controlling nature and his wife is timid and jumpy.
Despite living in the same block for a long period of time, they have never met other than to say Morning when passing on the stairs.

Despite the confident and happy exterior of the first couple’s life however they have a secret; he is an illegal immigrant. Short Man, played by a darkly menacing Paul Hunter, has discovered this and decides to blackmail his neighbour.

This is not a play not about financial extortion however, Short Man doesn’t want money but companionship and so begins a series of meetings where Tall Man must spend time with his blackmailer doing innocuous things such going for a walk and sharing a bottle of wine. He gives into Short Man’s demands quite easily, it appears he is a little lonely himself and happy to indulge him despite the fact that Paul Hunter’s character seems sinister and malevolent.

In a key scene they visit the nocturnal animal house at the zoo, one of Short Man’s favourite places. Here they watch the night dwelling animals in the same way as the audience watches them.

As well as this nod to the play’s title, we also have Short Woman’s (Amanda Lawrence) late night pastime; a call in show for insomniacs hosted by a suave Doctor (Matthew Dunster) in a Tommy Cooper style Fez hat. Unlike Tall Man she is not nocturnal by choice but thanks to long-term sleeplessness. Through these scenes we also hear the voices of other nocturnal lonely, city dwellers, calling in for solace from the handsome man in the white coat.

The situation comes to a conclusion when Tall Woman finds out about the blackmail. Instead of agreeing to confront his captor, he tells his wife he can deal with him, he’s just trying to think of a solution. She is angry and a little threatened, it emerges that below the surface the couple’s life is not as perfect as we or Short Man might think, consisting of just A miserable flat and a shitty job.

Instead of fleeing, Tall Man decides to stay, to the consternation of his wife who is forced to take action herself and in doing so bring the play to an end.

The lonely urban sprawl of their location is brought to life with design and animation by Matthew Walker and Hannah Clark. One of the highlights is that instead of a high concept set we move between an old people’s home, cafe, apartments and outside with a beautifully detailed animated set. This gives the whole piece a gritty graphic novel feel when combined with the two-dimensional characterization and plot.

Although promising and interesting, Nocturnal will not keep you awake a night. It’s a play about our increasingly isolated lives and unspoken desires but fails to tell us anything new other than how it’s so hard to meet your neighbours these days you might have to resort to desperate measures.

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