Finborough Theatre, London SW10
Opened 3 March, 2011

Caryl Churchill’s play, unrevived in London since its 1983 première, is not exactly a laugh a minute. It belongs to the genre sometimes called the “it’s grim up north” play, only in this case for “up north” substitute “over in East Anglia”. Ria Parry’s production brings out the bleak, wintry aspect of the fen landscape by laying a strip of soil across the middle of the Finborough’s space; seated in traverse, we watch the company of six harvest potatoes from this strip, clear it of rocks and stones, and also treat it as a variety of indoor spaces from living room to pub. The evening begins as we file in with, literally, a lot of clap-trap, as just such a wooden noise-making device is used to scare away the birds hovering in Dave Price’s excellent sound design.
Churchill, too, flutters around her huge subject, alighting momentarily on a number of different approaches: historical reminiscence, individual narrative, dramatic collage, and of course economic polemic. The play dates from a period of heavy corporate land acquisition, turning large numbers of farmers into tenants on their own ancestral land as profits shrank and costs and duties rose. Parry does not attempt to update the setting: Eighties pop threads through the soundtrack, and the few youthfully fashionable clothes on display show the shapeless flamboyance of the era. But these are rare spots of colour in a picture painted predominantly in greys and duns.
The cast of six play over twenty roles between them including a Japanese businessman, a ghost, and a stilt-walking “fen tiger” resisting the drainage of the area centuries ago. Time and again we see exploitation, whether of casual workers by farmers, of farmers by bigger companies, or even within families; the prevailing strain of the play is suffering, with the relationship of Val and Frank which weaves through the play reaching an inevitably doomy culmination. (Nor is the picture much different beyond the stage, with planning applications pending for a number of super-farms and the profit of the average grazing livestock farm predicted to fall this year to £11,500, almost exactly half the mean UK personal income.) All told, then, notwithstanding Churchill’s skill as a playwright and the comparative rarity value of this revival, it’s hardly a sparkling proposition for a night out.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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