What a strange and brilliant change of direction this new trio of acted poems represents for mercurial playwright Alistair McDowall. His philosophically dense sci-fi stories Pomona, X and The Glow all grappled with vast, existential questions but felt too big, too untamed, too messy for the stage. All of It at the Royal Court gives up any semblance of a traditional narrative structure, instead revelling in the sound and shape of words, and it soars as a result.
The excellent Kate O’Flynn is the glue that holds this creaking linguistic tower together, putting in an astonishing solo performance that’s deft and clever from moment-to-moment and a remarkable feat of endurance when viewed as a whole.
Structurally these works remind me of Rebecca Watson’s debut novel Little Scratch, a free-flowing, abstract thing that exists somewhere in the space between poetry, prose and typographical illustration (it was also adapted for the stage at Hampstead Theatre in 2021). Narratively there are echoes of Neil Gaiman in the merging of fantasy and mundanity, even flashes of Alasdair Gray’s sublime work of autofiction Lanark.
Split into three more-or-less equal sections, we begin with Northleigh, 1940, a story about a young woman living in wartime England who escapes anxieties over starting adult life amid the spectre of bombing raids, not to mention the death of her mother, through pulpy fantasy novels.
Next comes In Stereo, a Kafkaesque tale of a woman obsessed with a stain on her bedroom wall, only to become unshackled from time – a recurring theme in McDowall’s work – and ends up bearing witness to the entirety of human history.
Smaller and more emotionally devastating is the title piece, All of It, which charts the inner monologue of a woman from the moment of birth to all the way through to her death. We watch her go from an eager, angry, obsessive baby, through to a hormonal teenager, then a wife, mother, grandmother and eventually a person gradually slipping away from it all.
Performed by O’Flynn sitting on a chair on an otherwise empty stage, it’s a rollercoaster of a poem, an entire life unravelled in less than an hour: highs and lows, achievements and disappointments, the inevitable conclusion. It’s an outstanding piece of work, the meeting of a writer and actor at the peak of their powers, and quite unlike anything I’ve seen before.