“The Driver’s Seat is one of renowned novelist Muriel Spark’s most gripping and disturbing books”. I have taken this opening quote direct from the promotional literature for this work because it is absolutely correct and sums the whole production up in a sentence.
I have to admit here that, like many people, I know Muriel Spark best for her enduring creations of Miss Brodie and her girls, and I have not read the original 1970 novella of “The Driver’s Seat”, or seen the 1974 film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor. This for me is a new piece of work and I am reviewing this World Premiere production by The National Theatre of Scotland with adaptation and direction from artistic director Laurie Sansom on what was on stage tonight.
This is one of those few times when I have to split things up a bit as there are many faces to this production – the acting, stage and technical, the production itself, and of course the source material.
Muriel Spark was vague about where the story was set, so the opening office scenes could be anywhere, although Lise does buy her new outfit from Jenners in Edinburgh. We are also never sure exactly where the principal character of Lise actually comes from. The general assumption seems to be somewhere in Northern Europe.
Writing a review on a thriller adaptation is always difficult for me as there will always be two types of people in an audience – those who know the original source material and know what to expect, and those like myself who have no idea what to expect. I never want to spoil that pleasure of watching a story unfold for the latter.
Anyway, without giving too much away here, we have two stories running at the same time. For one story we have the obviously disturbed Lise travelling and looking for “the one” and meeting a strange assortment of people along the way to her quest, and on the other story, we have an ongoing police murder investigation going on.
The first thing that usually strikes me when the curtain rises on a production is the set and costumes. For this production, the set, costume and video designer Ana Ines Jabares Pita has done an amazing job. Like the original book we seem to be set in the 1970s, and where needed there is attention to period detailing. This is not just in things like the costume, but little things such as the “real” airline ticket book that Lise has with her. This is a production where everything has been taken into account, and has a purpose in the story. Often on stage, lighting and sound set the scene, but here lighting, sound and video are as much a part of telling the story as the actors themselves. You have to listen very closely to the sound effects here as some of them carry small clues as to what is happening inside the head of Lise.
The acting performances on stage are all of a very high standard and part of that is due to the strong individual identity of the main characters and the obviously very high standards set by the whole creative team.
This story is very much about Lise and it is very much Lise who is in “The Driver’s Seat” all of the time. Morven Christie as Lise gives us an at times very fragile and vulnerable performance of an obviously disturbed young woman without taking her into the realms of “crazy woman”. Everyone revolves around Lise and is to some degree manipulated by her actions. Morven has that ability to slightly change personality with each different character she meets.
This of course is not a solo show, and there are some fine performances by the whole cast. Sheila Reid as Mrs Fiedke and Ryan Fletcher as Bill get some nice little light comedy lines to add to their characters’ personalities too. Michael Thomson as Richard gets one of the more interesting parts to me, and does a fine job with the limited time he has on stage, but this is one character that I would have liked to know a lot more about. We also have strong performances from Ivan Castiglione (Carlo), Gabriel Quigley (Mrs Jo’Burg) and Andrea Volpetti (Francesco).
If there are real questions for me over “The Driver’s Seat”, it is not in the outstanding production on stage, but with the original source material. This is a very dark piece of work in parts and everything revolves around an obviously very damaged and very vulnerable young woman. We are never given anything other than the slightest clues (which you can easily miss) as to the events that have lead to Lise being such a damaged individual and how those events have lead her to make the choices that she does, but I wanted to know that. I needed to understand a little more of what was going on inside the head of Lise.
There are some elements of this story that give away the original time frame it was written in. The sexual attitudes towards Lise as a woman would in some cases be treated now as sexual harassment and some people may now have difficulty relating to her acceptance of her environment at times. This is all made stranger by the fact that Lise clearly states on more than one occasion that the least thing that she is interested in is sex.
Lise is very much a victim here and her cries for help go un-noticed, but her manipulations deliberately make others victims too, so who is really the victim and who is really in "The Driver’s Seat”?
Review by Tom King