Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 24 October, 2005

I am enthusiastic about Nell Leyshon's second play, set on an orchard farm near the Somerset Levels. It is as well to make such a clear declaration at the outset, since this is one of those plays where a sense of its overall quality is damned difficult to convey through a simple report of what it involves. Leyshon's dialogue is without a dram of superfluity, as stark as a leafless apple tree in a winter sky. Lucy Bailey directs her cast of five, led by Anna Calder-Marshall, likewise: these are people who are not merely unused to articulating their emotions, but who may never consciously even think about such things, and who know each other's doings so well that there is no need for palaver on that score either.

The play is set in autumn, between the death of farmer Arthur and his funeral. His elderly widow Irene strives to continue her iron-fisted matriarchy over her simple-minded brother Len and middle-aged son Roy. But she refuses to face two realities: first, that the orchard has been neglected almost to the point of dereliction and is in hock to the banks, and second, that the household regime's closed borders following her expulsion three years ago of Roy's twin Brenda and banishment of their childhood friend and Roy's beloved, Linda, cannot be maintained. That's it. Little is said; little needs to be. The traditional big mid-second-act revelations, which might normally occupy up to 20 minutes of intense, breast-baring orotundity, are dispensed with here in 200 words or less. The only false note is a bizarre outbreak of folk mythology at the very end.

Mike Britton's set combines a rolling ground of earth with the walls and furniture of the farm cottage, as if to emphasise the family's bonds with the land; after the interval, the stage becomes the orchard itself, complete with a couple of hundredweight of windfallen apples. It is dripping with symbolism, suggesting that here is an entire rural way of life in near-terminal decline; but where that other theatrical orchard, the Ranevskys' cherry orchard in Chekhov, is principally an emblem, the apple orchard here is the sole central fact of the family's lives. It is all there is.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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