My Name Is Lucy Barton (Bridge Theatre)

My Name Is Lucy Barton (Bridge Theatre)
This one-woman show is an apt fit for the Bridge Theatre: stylish, composed and somewhat clinical. Based on Elizabeth Strout’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel of the same name, and adapted for the stage by Rona Munro, it is a fitting vessel for Laura Linney’s prodigious talent. She flourishes under Richard Eyre’s direction, and delivers a quietly reflective monologue that is at times extraordinarily subtle and at others, frustratingly evasive. The eponymous Lucy is a writer who has escaped a childhood of staggering poverty in rural Illinois and remade her life in New York. Convalescing in hospital with a mysterious illness, she is separated from her husband and children and reunited for a short time with her estranged mother. Mother and child are thrown into a series of poignant and painful reminiscences as they attempt to heal, to reach out, and to make sense of their relationship after years apart. Clinging to a shared history at once binding and separating, they tentatively approach their respective trauma and guilt for the economic and emotional poverty of Lucy’s childhood. Like the expansive grey skies projected behind them, this iron truth looms over their every interaction.

“Like Gatsby in a cardigan and ballet pumps, she is filled with a deep, unceasing loneliness.”

Her mother, a brittle, larger-than-life woman, played almost to caricature by Linney, attempts to access this shared history through gossip, launching into countless narrations of local characters with comically alliterative names. Almost all of them are gleeful morality tales of women who tried to break out of their ‘domestic shackles’ and wound up humiliated or alone. Linney’s sharp-toothed relish and nasal Midwestern drawl fleshes out this performance, drawing many chuckles with her well-timed delivery. But something darker lurks behind this gossipy veneer, a pervasive disdain for Icarus-esque overreaching, and a desperate insecurity about their cultural heritage. Whilst Amgash, Illinois sparks in Lucy a kind of inescapable existential terror, her mother clutches desperately to her narrative of an American Dream, lost in New York without her endless skies. At one point she lectures Lucy on the Bartons’ legacy, narrating their crossing in the Mayflower, their pioneer’s mission to the Midwest to settle its unforgiving prairies. Attempting to undo their family’s stigma stemming from Mr Barton’s undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and their uncomfortable poverty, she grasps desperately at an ideology of resilience and naturalised ‘Americanness’. Yet Lucy’s fear of open spaces, of the dark and the cold, betrays a deep insecurity about their inability to put down solid roots on stolen land. Lucy recalls her father’s fascination at a ritual demonstration of local ‘Indians- sorry, Native Americans’ (she forgets and reverts to ‘Indians’ once more). Their awkward fascination with this parallel heritage is emblematic of their awkward settler identity which rests on the partial displacing of an ‘other’. Lucy herself embodies this settler identity; like Gatsby in a cardigan and ballet pumps, she is filled with a deep, unceasing loneliness. We see it in her effusive affection for strangers, from her ‘kind, kiiiiiiiind’ doctor whom she reveres with childlike adoration, her ‘beautiful’ neighbour Jeremy and even her stranger-mother whom she assails with constant strains of ‘I love you mommy’, ‘do you love me mommy?’ All are met with reverberating silence. But it is most apparent in the panoramic vistas projected behind them, which transport us from the cold hospital room to the endless soybean fields of Illinois. These sparse, empty landscapes, just golden ground and grey-blue sky, are at once beautiful and desolate, realised in microscopic detail by Luke Halls. Through Bob Crowley’s excellent stage design, they seep into her past, present and future- haunting her like an uneasy ghost. The play concludes with a kind of celebration of artistic individuation, as Lucy forgoes her husband and children for the empowering loneliness of her art. Like the classic American anti-hero she achieves fame and fortune through writing – a tool for emancipation and self-definition. Like the elusive American Dream this ending is somewhat unsatisfying in practice, but perhaps this is inevitable.   My Name Is Lucy Barton is running at The Bridge Theatre until Saturday 16th February. Tickets can be purchased here.

3/5

Image: Manuel Harlan
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