A bestselling American novel becomes a powerful solo show on the London stage
Elizabeth Strout can see the East River, she tells me, from the window of her New York apartment as we speak on the phone; I can’t help thinking of the view in her quietly spectacular novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, as its eponymous protagonist lies in a hospital bed, her window framing the spire of the Chrysler Building. But it’s not a ‘New York novel’, as such: during Lucy’s nine-week stay in that hospital, she is visited by her mother, who brings tales from Illinois and the town where she grew up. The novel is a startlingly lucid examination of the strains and loves of the mother-daughter bond, of social class, of the possibility of many kinds of recovery. Throughout, Strout channels Lucy’s voice with pure verisimilitude: an act of ventriloquism that made this seemingly understated book a bestseller.
And now it is to come to the stage, starring Laura Linney as a solo act, in her London theatre debut. Adapted by Rona Munro (whose history cycle, ‘The James Plays’, was such a hit for the National Theatre of Scotland a few years ago) and directed by Richard Eyre, the play will have a three-week run at the Bridge Theatre, which opened not long ago on the river front near City Hall. ‘I’m thrilled,’ says Strout of this exciting development. ‘It made complete sense to me as soon as I heard they wanted to do it as a one-woman show. I thought, “Oh, of course!”’ In the novel, the stories Lucy’s mother tells about their hometown are filtered through Lucy’s perception of them; it is she who embodies all the characters her mother describes.
Strout thinks Laura Linney is ‘just wonderful’, and believes she will convey her character’s sound. ‘My theory is that Lucy’s voice is very particular,’ she says, ‘and there is something in her voice that speaks directly to a reader’s heart. I think of her as kind of guileless, and that guilelessness cuts straight through to an available heart.’ She speaks of the ‘pure’ quality of Lucy’s voice, as if it is something quite outside of herself, the writer. ‘It came up through me,’ she says, simply.
When Lucy’s mother comes to visit her, she is confronted by a past that is poor and oppressed, very different from her prosperous present. Strout has previously remarked that ‘all my work is about class, but nobody ever asks me about it’. So I ask her about it: whether she thinks it is striking that this production is premiering in Britain, a society famously and clearly obsessed with class. People in the United States, I say, tend to think that class is only about economics, but it’s more than that, certainly. Strout agrees. ‘When I was young, the whole myth was that we were a classless society,’ she says. ‘It’s only recently that people have started to talk about class because of the political ramifications of what class really means.’
She won’t tell me what she’s working on now. ‘I always think once I talk about my work it’s like letting the air out of a balloon and it starts to droop,’ she says with a smile in her voice, and I like the metaphor, because it is the tautness of her writing, the sense of nothing to spare, that distinguishes it so powerfully. It will be remarkable to see that emotion translated onto the stage of the Bridge Theatre. ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ is at the Bridge Theatre (www.bridgetheatre. co.uk) from 2 to 23 June.
Elizabeth Strout in her Manhattan apartment