An Englishman, an Irishman and two Scotsmen walk into a theatre season... I'm sorry, but it's too good an opening line to pass up, especially when this is the superficially inappropriate composition of the playwrights in the Paines Plough company's "This Other England" strand. As it happens, though, the unifying theme is not national identity itself but rather the English language as a factor therein.
The season begins with The Small Things by Cork-born Enda Walsh. For the first half or so of its 65 minutes, it seems a straight mix of Samuel Beckett and Alan Bennett. An elderly man and woman sit in armchairs, taking turns with monologic accounts of their childhoods together in a small village (the location is never specified, but the accents are Lancashire). There's a window on to who knows what à la Endgame, alarm bells as cues à la Happy Days, but also banal stories about meringues and the public swimming pool such as might be recounted by one of Bennett's Talking Heads. Every so often one or other will savour a word – "lumpen", "languid" – in a way that suggests the point of Walsh's piece might be language's ability to enrich even such unexceptional events as they speak of.
Just as we are lulled, matters darken rapidly; the cracked obsession of the woman's father becomes a messianic drive to turn the village into a regiment of mute time-and-motion robots, and we're pitched into a picture somewhere between Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and an intimate Holocaust. Language, we realise – and in particular, banality, the ability to chat inconsequentially – is now a redeeming emblem of humanity. Later still, it serves as a betrayer, after which the once-again-Beckettian coda comes as little surprise.
After what I felt was the disappointment of Bedbound, this is Walsh returning to the prime form he showed in his UK début Disco Pigs. He creates a world which is at once fantastical and only a quarter-turn from the most ordinary of ordinaries, yet also seldom more than a whisper from real menace. Outgoing artistic director Vicky Featherstone's production discreetly emphasises the slight separateness of characters and events: on Neil Warmington's set, no object actually rests on the surface beneath it. Ultimately, though, the same separateness informs one's response to the piece: it's fascinating, but it doesn't strike feelingly.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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