Alys, Always is an unabashed crowd-pleaser, a gripping, pulpy thriller in the mould of Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. I imagine the novel, written by Harriet Lane, was advertised on the Underground.
It follows Frances, a sub-editor on the arts desk of a magazine called The Questioner. Her job is fixing the mistakes of the self-important, public school show-ponies that make up the editorial team, and acting as a shit-sponge when things go wrong.
Her life’s trajectory is jolted off course when she witnesses the death of a woman in a road traffic accident. Suddenly she’s attending a funeral alongside Melvyn Bragg and the controller of Radio 4, and slowly insinuating herself into the lives of Alys’ husband – an oily author called Laurence Kyte – and their posho offspring.
Frances is a meek, mousy creature who could blend in in an empty room. She’s a lower-middle class girl done not-so-bad, getting by, treading water in a job that probably won’t exist in five years.
She finds her unexpected proximity to wealth intoxicating. She swoons over a £200 bouquet of funeral flowers, and casually pilfers items from the country residence of the dead woman. Eventually she sets about collecting bigger, less forgivable prizes, befriending Alys’ obnoxious young daughter Polly and entering into a dubious relationship with Laurence.
The scenes set in the magazine office are hilarious, especially when the editor played by Sylvestra Le Touzel is on stage; she gets all the best lines, with zingers like: “This hot-desking is killing me. It’s like the Hunger Games.”
But Alys, Always isn’t really about the dog days of journalism, it’s a meditation on class, a study of the haves and the have nots. Anyone from a working class background whose job places them alongside well-connected, privately educated types will feel a pang of sympathy for Frances, even as she goes full Lady Macbeth in her desire to climb the social ladder.
Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation is effortlessly slick. Most of the action takes place on an unadorned stage with video projections playing behind the actors, giving the production a thoroughly modern feel. It’s not a play for the ages, but it’s a lot of fun.