It’s nearly 20 years since David Hare’s play had its premiere, but the arguments about social inequality and ideological values have not gone away. If anything, the fierce rows between Tom and Kyra have even more of a sting because Stephen Daldry’s excellent revival keeps the play in its period (no mobile phones, no Google) but the points still feel agonisingly fresh. And the beautifully counterpointed performances from Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan twist the personal and the political together.
The play brings together two usually mutually exclusive Britains – glossily successful Chelsea; a grim, high-rise estate – through a visitor to both: middle-class Kyra. Kyra worked with, and had an affair with, wealthy restaurateur Tom, but when his wife found out she left. She now works as a teacher in a tough east London school and lives in a freezing flat. One cold December night she is visited first by Tom’s teenage son, Edward (a charmingly gauche Matthew Beard), and then by Tom himself. Tom is now a widower, and a parcel of conflicting emotions: guilt, grief, resentment, longing. His arrival knocks Kyra out of her carefully constructed equanimity.
The stand-off between the two is rather too polarised – he, the energetic, sceptical face of free-market capitalism; she, the embattled idealism of the public sector – and some exposition clunks. But Hare offsets this through the personal story, entwining smart debate with messy feelings. Tom and Kyra, ideologically opposed, know each other so well that they can spot each other’s frailties.
Hare’s sympathies are clearly with Kyra: her passionate speech defending teachers and social workers from the scorn of wealthy armchair critics is brilliant and powerful. But Tom touches a nerve when he questions whether her self-denial is flecked with guilt. Meanwhile his energy is hugely attractive, but his arrogant dismissal of Kyra’s chosen path suggests that he finds her resistance to his values threatening.
Nighy is outstanding as Tom, bringing his raffish, twinkly charisma and pliant physique to the part, prowling the flat restlessly in his expensive overcoat. His timing is superb: a simple observation on Kyra’s cooking is loaded with subtext. Mulligan is the yin to his yang: contained, feline and quietly obstinate. Both beautifully convey the hurt inside these two wounded, stubborn creatures. And in the end, the values the play endorses are delivered not in words but in action: in Edward’s simple gesture of bringing Kyra breakfast; in Kyra’s eye-wateringly early start to help one promising, disadvantaged pupil.