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VALHALLA – Theatre503, London.

Valhalla1_0Paul Murphy’s new play Valhalla – his first – has had a rough ride to the stage. The male lead, Clint Dyer, withdrew from the production on press night. A setback like this would be hard going for any show – but in a work like this it could easily have been fatal. A claustrophobic two-hander, it’s the story of two doctors, a couple, who have retreated from a city to a remote research station, somewhere at Europe’s northern extremities. Isolated from society and without anything to distract them, they are forced to confront dark secrets from their past – about their relationship, about their work and about their reasons for leaving.

To rescue Valhalla from the potentially catastrophic loss of their lead, the author is gamely standing in (albeit with script in hand on the night I saw it). Fortunately Murphy is a trained actor, so he holds the stage and gives Carolina Main a reasonable foil for her skilful and detailed performance.

While Murphy does a serviceable job in a pinch, there are some fundamental problems with his presence here. The dialogue is staccato and overlapping throughout, a style of writing that requires real tightness between the two leads. The lack of rehearsal that has come with this last minute alteration means that it comes across as too slack. In addition it’s clear that his character is meant to be something of an alpha male – Murphy is such an amiable presence on stage that a lot of the meanings get lost. It ends up being hard to read what the play is trying to do: the move towards a catastrophic marriage breakdown doesn’t make as much sense with such an unimposing man in the lead.

This blurriness at the centre is a particular pity as Valhalla would be incredibly hard to pin down anyway. Murphy clearly has a very unusual imagination, and cramming as many ideas as he can into Valhalla demonstrates his fearlessness. It’s only 80 minutes long, but you still lose count of the number of different plays it seems to be: is it a Strindbergian story of a marriage complete with the wife going mad, or a yuppie nightmare about the after-effects of urban riots, or a thriller about medical ethics, or a feminist updating of Norse mythology? Who knows! Even if you’re bamboozled by it, this lack of an obvious through line is to Murphy’s credit – it’s rare to see a first play with this much ambition.

However, the ultimate effect of Jo McInnes’s production is curiously one-note. The dialogue is almost all one-two rat-a-tat-tat with only occasional flashes of humour and no moments of expansiveness. This feeling of monotony is not helped at all by Kate Lias’s distractingly stark set which takes Nordic minimalism to an extreme. All surfaces are white apart from some wood tones from a few items of tasteful if austere Mid-Century Modern furniture. Giving a work like this so bare a stage just seems plain wrong – you don’t get any sense of the world outside their house which seems so important to the characters; you also don’t feel that these two are a really a couple and this where they live. Watching it take place on this blank canvas makes it all feel very hypothetical, lowering the stakes significantly.

Given a pair of proper performances and with a more sympathetic production, it’s possible that Valhalla could work more powerfully than it does here: the marital drama could be made more tense, the thematic promiscuity more coherent. On the night I saw it, it stands more as a curio than it does as anything more substantial.

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Reviewed 03/10/15

By Robbie Lumsden

30th September – 24th October 2015
Theatre503, London, SW11 3BW.

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