Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 27 April, 2001

However I try to describe Henry Adam's new play, it sounds slight and clichéd. Two twentysomething lads return to the isolated farmhouse which one of them has just inherited; they swap various strains of nostalgic reminiscence and despair for the future with an elderly neighbour, blind and growing senile, and his granddaughter who is about to sacrifice the chance of university to care for him; they read from an old copy of Peter Pan, and they shoot up smack. The title of the piece, Among Unbroken Hearts, does not help matters, nor does the poster image of a signpost pointing to various abstract destinations such as Trust, Joy, Loss and the like.

It threatens so to become simply another declaration that it's grim up north and since the play is set in Adam's home territory of Wick and environs, it's impossible to get further north on the British mainland. Not so much Trainspotting as Croftspotting. And yet, despite the unpromising raw material, Adam's writing and John Tiffany's direction mean that, on the stage of the Bush Theatre (in a co-production with Edinburgh's Traverse, where it was seen last autumn), the play attains an unfussy power which suggests the primitive, big-sky elemental strength of the landscape and climate in which it is set.

Mark Leese's very Traverse set design consists of little more than a blue neon strip and a huge backdrop of the final illustration from Barrie's book, complete with the caption "To die will be an awfully big adventure", leaving us in little doubt that not all four characters will still be alive at the end of the two-hour playing time. But neither Adam nor Tiffany's cast overplay the big concepts with which the play is bursting, leaving them to emerge from entirely ordinary lives. When young Ray and old Chaimig exchange the traditional Scots toast, "Here's til us Fa's lek us? Gae few" (in Adam's dialect orthography), the last line of the formula "An' they're a' deid" is discreetly but deliberately left unspoken. The feeling is cool and raw but not at all laboured at being so. The Caithness dialect (coached by Ros Steen) further adds to the sense of alienness and detachment, that these are lives both like and unlike our own. I am no nearer being able to explain how Among Unbroken Hearts works, but I am in no doubt that it does.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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