The American novelist Elizabeth Strout has an impressive hit-rate of dramatic adaptation. Of her six novels, Amy and Isabelle became a movie, Olive Kitteridge an HBO mini-series, and now My Name is Lucy Barton is a stage show in which Laura Linney, a Broadway and Hollywood star, makes her London theatre debut. Man Booker longlisted in 2016, the book is narrated by a best-selling American novelist who remembers a period of hospitalisation in Manhattan in the early 1980s. At risk of death from a post-operative infection, she is visited for five nights by her semi-estranged mother, who travels for the first time from the family “cow patch” home of Amgash, Illinois.
Conventionally, first-person novels are opened out by dramatisation, with reported speech being performed. But playwright Rona Munro and director Richard Eyre have opted to translate a novelistic monologue into a solo stage show, keeping the book’s other players offstage, physically at least. Moving between a hospital bed and visitor’s chair, Linney alternates between inhabiting Lucy and her mother. The effect of this is to emphasise the text’s suggestion of the women as instinctive monologuists incapable of listening or connection. The staging also adds the possibility, as in Harold Pinter’s memory plays, that Lucy, who warns us that her recall may be unreliable, is imagining or confusing some things.
This device depends on an actress skilful enough to ventriloquise a New York thirty-something and a Midwesterner twice her age. Linney does so captivatingly. Both women say “cat-nap” in different speeches, but she uses a slow, rounded “a” for the mother, the word coming out almost as “cate-nape”, and a quicker, flatter vowel for the daughter, a college-educated townie.
The suggestion that Lucy has urbanised her Amgash dialect illustrates, more viscerally than is possible in prose, the subtext of familial and national division. Linney gives the mother a tremulously judgemental edge when she speaks of the “East”. Such careful verbal nuances are true to the way the novel economically presented three key tribes of 21st-century America: city, country and European immigrant. (Lucy’s husband is the son of a German soldier of the Second World War, in which her father fought.)
Strout’s novelistic strategy is to mix the insular – the feeling of writing, publishing and publicising novels – with the international: Vietnam, the Aids epidemic and 9/11 get walk-on paragraphs. The historical context sometimes feels like a spice added in case the meal turns bland, while the story’s pattern of potentially damaging relationships – between Lucy and her parents and children – seems already meaty enough to me.
While staying faithful to the book, Munro’s script involves some judicial cutting and shifting. Her most striking decision is to anonymise “Sarah Payne”, a veteran novelist whom Lucy admires and is taught by. This may be because the name falls uneasily on English ears (as the victim of a notorious child murder in 2000), or to invite the audience to visualise the mentor as a literary figure of their choosing. By maintaining the book’s single-speaker form, the piece inevitably feels at times like the world’s most luxurious audiobook. Employing minimal lighting and music cues, Richard Eyre’s typically polished staging continues his impressive 76th year, after his BBC Two King Lear.
The theatrical translation is, however, justified as it reveals the novel to be unexpectedly sonic. Lucy’s confession that she struggles to say the word “snake” (due to a childhood experience) has far greater impact when we hear Linney gag-swallowing the middle of the word. She also finds, in seemingly innocuous lines, laughs that fill a 900-seat theatre.
In Strout’s most recent novel, Anything is Possible, Lucy Barton goes home to Amgash. One hopes that Linney, Eyre and Munro may one day combine both books into a bigger play.
“My Name is Lucy Barton” runs until 23 June
This article appears in the 13 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?