Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is one of my all time favourites so I was always going to go and see his first play, Polar Bears which is debuting at the Donmar Warehouse.
Curious is a well-observed book told through the eyes of a boy with Asperger syndrome and although Polar Bears doesn’t have the same first person narrative it does have mental illness at its heart.
Kay, played by Jodhi May, has extreme bi-polar swinging from jolly hyperactivity to curling up in a ball and rejecting all around her.
And as Curious started with a corpse, so does Polar Bears: Kay’s. The first scene is a conversation between Kay's husband John (Andrew Coyle) and her brother Sandy (Paul Hilton) in which John confesses to having killed her, wrapped the body in the plastic left over from a new carpet and dragged the body into the basement. And so the journey of what led up to her violent demise begins.
The play explores the idea of mental illness and how people respond to it. Yes Kay is unpredictable but then those closes to her are one by one slowly exposed as not entirely rational either.
There is her mother (Celia Imrie) haunted by the suicide of her husband and unwilling to move out of the house in which he died as it falls down around her. There is Sandy who is haunted by being the first to discover the hanging body of his father. In one scene we learn that when they were children he used to make Kay stand on a chair with a noose around her neck and recite their father’s suicide note.
And then there is John who confesses early on to being attracted to Kay essentially because she makes him more interesting. He is the stable one, he might even use the word ‘boring’ often overlooked but Kay ‘needs him’ because he grounds her. He is driven, in the heat of an argument, to want ‘to hurt her, just a bit’.
All of them display behaviour that couldn't particularly be described as healthy - I'm trying to avoid using the word normal - and yet it is Kay that is on medication and periodically institutionalised.
The irony is that all three have very selfish relationships with Kay. The mother is the eternal martyr to her care, the brother both denies her illness and yet pushes away, sometimes violently, anyone who tries to get close to her as if she is some sort of shield to his own mental instability. And John has a dependent albeit an unpredictable one.
Polar Bears isn’t quite Curious but it is very good, aided by some great performances. May is a little too stagey as Kay for my taste but Coyle does well as the boring but clever John who flips. And Imrie talks in the usual posh clipped tone we’ve come to associate her with.
Definitely a play to file under ‘thought-provoking’ rather than ‘easy entertainment’. I got the impression from the conversations I overhead in the loo afterwards that it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was mine.
The West End Whingers thought it was dreary and unengaging
Paul Taylor of The Independent gives it three stars and is undecided about whether it works
Michael Billington of The Guardian also gives it three stars and felt the ideas expressed were good but not executed as well as they could have been