My City is TV and film writer Stephen Poliakoff's much-anticipated return to the stage after 12 years, but although I avoided actual reviews as usual, I got the impression that people had been largely unenthusiastic about the play itself. Though not a modern classic I found it to be well worth seeing, and when it's good it's very good. Richard (gorgeous Tom Riley) is walking home from a party one night when he sees a woman apparently sleeping on a bench. She turns out to be his former primary school headmistress, Miss Lambert (Tracey Ullman,) a woman whose inspirational teaching helped him partly overcome his ADHD as a child. Joined by his slightly-less-enthusiastic former classmate Julie (a very funny turn from Siân Brooke) he meets up with Miss Lambert a couple of nights later to try and get to the bottom of her dusk-to-dawn walks around London. But she's also brought some people along: Back at school she'd enlist fellow teachers Minken and Summers (David Troughton and Sorcha Cusack) to help her tell stories at Assembly. Now retired, these sidekicks still pop up sometimes on her nighttime wanderings.
As well as the theme of inspirational teachers, a passion for storytelling is the other starting point of the play, and while we sometimes flash back to the stories they told at school assembly, mostly we're in the present where Miss Lambert's preference has taken a turn to spookier or more macabre tales. There's something eerie and ghostly about this trio of retired teachers too, and by the interval you start to wonder exactly what their plans are for their former students. Between the two acts we were discussing the play and Jan's prediction that the play's supernatural subtext would become more literal turned out to be wrong, but I'd have preferred it if he'd been right, or at least a tight plot twist of that nature. The conclusion we do get isn't unsatisfying as such, but it did feel like a lot of little comments made earlier on would reveal a deeper meaning, so it was disappointing when they didn't.
Afterwards Jan said I should quote his verdict as being that the play was less than the sum of it's parts, but that those parts were very good. I can't argue with that, indeed whether charming, spooky or moving most of the stories were beautifully told. In fact I think this is where some of my sense of disappointment came from, the individual tales were sometimes so absorbing it was a jolt to come out of them into a framework that wasn't quite hanging together. There's no complaints as far as the acting's concerned, all the way up from Hannah Arterton's trio of very different waitresses serving the group as the night goes on, to Brooke's funny and grounded Julie, Cusack's enigmatic Summers and Troughton's memory-hoarding Minken. Ullman's mysterious central figure is a mix of the steely and the playful, and it's easy to see why someone made the casting decision to go for an actress best known for character comedy to play someone whose storytelling requires her to take on so many roles; while Riley impresses when his character comes to the fore in the second half. There's some absolutely beautiful moments in here even if the whole doesn't quite fit together. And in those moments that don't work as well, you can at least stare at Tom Riley's jeans.
My City by Stephen Poliakoff is booking until the 5th of November at the Almeida Theatre.