AT­LANTIC CROSS­ING

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Talking Points - By ERICA WAG­NER

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

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