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A CurtainUp London Review
Poliakoff directs himself in this play which starts when, after a party, Richard (Tom Riley) finds his old primary school headmistress lying on a park bench near St Pauls. She isnít down and out just nocturnal since retiring from her teaching role.
My City returns to Poliakoff's recurring themes: living history and the past, memory and telling the most wonderful stories that capture your imagination.
From the opening we return in a flashback to Richardís primary school where the charismatic Miss Lambert (Tracey Ullman) is holding assembly and telling the children a story about the sounds of London. She describes the sound of typewriters from offices, the playing of the pianos in the piano warehouse and further back in history, the sound of stage coaches and the story by Edgar Allen Poe of The Raven.
Two other teachers: Mr Minken (David Troughton) and Miss Summers (Sorcha Cusack) will assist by playing recordings. Richard gets in touch with his class mate from school, Julie (Si‚n Brooke) and persuades her to meet Miss Lambert. Miss Lambert remembers them both because at nine years old they both had special difficulties with school. Richard had attention deficit syndrome and a terrible stammer and Julie was dyslexic. With Miss Lambert as their teacher, both used stories and telling their own stories to overcome their difficulties and clearly remember her inspirational teaching.
We are taken on a tour of London after dark, of the underground when the trains have stopped and of what happens when people can walk the tracks. It is a netherworld of unknowns and mystery.
The second act opens with another assembly at the primary school back to 1860s in Victorian times where animals in menageries are on display to the curious public. We hear about Queen Victoriaís personal elephants, not at the zoo in Regentís Park, but at Camden Lock as the teachers brim over with enthusiasm.
Newly reunited, they all arrange to meet at night and Richard and Julie go to Mr Minkenís flat with Miss Lambert and Miss Summers. Here Mr Minken has kept the childrenís pictures and the sound tapes made over the years.
As we meet the night loving teachers today, we realise each has serious issues. Mr Minken has to move from his flat and throw away the treasured collection, Miss Summers is disillusioned with the change in children, the loss of innocence and Miss Lambert is the most damaged of all in her inability to adjust to retirement. Richard too has been living a story covering up a deep seated problem.
The sets and lighting convey London at night, a cafe and restaurant and the interior of Mr Minkenís flat is detailed with wonderful lighting. Ben and Max Ringham conjure sounds to illustrate London now and London of the past. New comer Hannah Arterton plays waitresses in different venues.
The performances are excellent. Tracey Ullmanís Miss Lambert holds the assembly of children in her hand with her exquisite story telling. David Troughtonís Mr Minken starts to behave oddly, obsessive- compulsively he guards the materials from so long ago and as he gives them up, he goes to pieces.
It is distressing to watch Richard, in this, probably the saddest of Poliakoffís works for the stage. Some will find it slow theatre but for those happy to daydream, the stories are magical. I cannot reveal here what it is that makes Miss Lambert nocturnal nor the outcomes for the others.
For those who cannot get to the Almeida or who prefer their Poliakoff in serial form, the DVDs of his masterpieces Perfect Strangers, my personal favourite and Shooting the Past are beautifully shot and acted stories about the past impacting on the present and linger in your imagination.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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