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When the Night Begins
by Brian Clover

I came here to kill you, not send you on holiday.
--- Jane
When the Night Begins
Catherine McCormack as Jane and Michael Pennington as Cecil
(Photo: Robert Day)
How can we heal the scars of the past? That is the main question of Hanif Kureishi's When the Night Begins and his answer is a bleak one.

We are in the dingy kitchen of a run-down apartment block. The elevators don't work so Cecil (Michael Pennington), a sick old man, is forced to puff his way up the dirty stairs. He does this every day, following the same routine, but today is different: this evening he is followed into his sordid lair by Jane (Catherine McCormack), a beautiful young woman. Who she is, what she wants, what she learns, what she gets -- these form the substance of the play that unfolds over the next hour and twenty minutes.

Koreishi stretches this drama out on a number of contrasts -- youth and age, innocence and experience, poverty and wealth, art and banality, love and fear and, of course, male and female. Jane is the globe-trotting widow of an established film-maker. Although she has wealth, success and status she is also insecure, vulnerable and unfulfilled. Cecil, on the other hand, has retired from a life as a bus driver, union officer and communist. His days are dull and predictable; he barely moves more than a few yards from his apartment block. What do these two have in common?

Well, we have already guessed what that is before Jane pulls out a knife to kill the step-father who abused her in childhood. She means to end her world of pain by extinguishing its source. Cecil's sad but safe little world crumbles around him as he faces his accuser. And yet, we suspect things will not go according to plan…

Nor do they. Cecil can be scared, but he is never crushed. His egotism is invincible, so free of guilt, that he can even voice his jealousy of Jane's late husband. "The idea of that fat body lying on you". He has a mocking sense of humour: "Sanity is definitely my favourite quality in a woman," he says of Jane's mother and her murderous rage. But he is also capable of tenderness towards his ex-wife and her victim daughter. And he has pride, pride in Jane's success and pride in himself. "The working class movement's been my whole life," he says, although Jane misses the obvious opportunity to point out that there were less worthy aspects of this life. Cecil, in short, is a monster, but a monster happy in his own skin. He has no shame and has self-actualised without the need of a therapist. Unlike Jane.

Monster he may be, but Cecil is also a wise and articulate man. As their afternoon turns into night, their traditional time for abuse to begin, Cecil demolishes Jane's hard-won certainties about herself and her life. Yes, he insists, she was abused, but she colluded in it, even invited it. Her own mother, a feckless, fuddled hippy, failed to protect her. Cecil had loved Jane, still loves her and cherishes her even now. The sexual abuse, far from damaging her, helped make her what she is today, something special. Her failings, such as they are, are hers alone: she was always lazy and under-achieving. She should not use him as an excuse for her failures, and so on. Is he telling the truth, or is this subtle psychological abuse on top of the crudely physical? Whatever it is, Cecil now takes the initiative and it looks as if Jane's nightmares will begin all over again.

Kureishi's aim seems to be to present a realistic context of child abuse. He takes pains to prevent Cecil and Jane's characters being clichés and he is determined to make us face uncomfortable truths about human desire, guilt and self-deception. He also hints at the possibility of some kind of redemption from suffering, or is it simply that in the end sheer weariness can defeat pain?

Some might feel this is an inappropriate treatment of such a topic, but I suspect that Kureishi's real theme is with the nature of the parent/child relationship itself, with sexual abuse being an extreme example of how problematic this can be. His protagonist is Jane, a damaged but also privileged child who has lost her way, seeking to understand herself. She comes to Cecil for illumination as much as revenge and he holds up the mirror of insight to her in a way that her own therapist can't. Significantly, for such an uninhibited talker, Cecil says nothing about his own parents: he is simply a force who has acted upon Jane in the past and is acting now.

These are uncomfortable themes and When the Night Begins is a demanding piece, but is it drama? Michael Pennington and Catherine McCormack work very hard to give life to Cecil and Jane, although at times each has to sustain awkward poses while listening to lengthy speeches from the other that are just too wordy.

Indeed, When the Night Begins is more literary than dramatic. It relies too much on text and, given its short duration, spends too much time presenting back-story rather than moving the action on. While this might work well as a short story, it loses power on the stage. Similarly, the aphorisms and one-liners seem to have from the writer's notebook rather than the characters themselves. The business involving Jane's knife, symbol of both freedom and repression, is literally and psychologically clumsy. (And left me musing over where she might have bought it: it's a classy knife, but would a shop sell such a lethal item to someone who wears sun-glasses at night? Yes, I suppose so...) Similarly, Jane's re-assertion of herself through art fails to convince: watching someone draw in semi-darkness is never a compelling spectacle, and certainly not one with which to close a play that deals in such horrors.

Kureishi has a distinguished, if controversial and uneven, record as a writer of screenplays and novels: the viewer may well feel he has yet to master the art of live drama.

When the Night Begins
Written by Hanif Kureishi
Directed by Anthony Clark

Starring: Michael Pennington and Catherine McCormack
Designer: Patrick Connellan
Lighting Design: Paul Pyant
Sound Designer: Gregory Clarke
Running time: One hour twenty minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 17th April 2004
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 12th March 2004 Performance at the Hampstead Theatre Eton Avenue London NW3 (Tube Station: Swiss Cottage)
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