Philip Osment ends his "Devon Trilogy" on a decidedly downbeat note, with three gunshots in blackout. Flesh And Blood spans thirty years on the precarious Thorne family farm, beginning immediately after the funeral in the mid-1950s of the father of the central trio of characters. Elder siblings William and Rose (yes, Rose Thorne), with their keen and oppressive sense of family obligation, take on the task of running the place, but their grim assiduity does not translate into success; younger brother Charles, stymied in his bid to escape through marriage, lets his festering resentment gnaw away at his mental health.
The play veers erratically between compelling, claustrophobic, rural family drama – all the tensions of an incestuous household without the actual incest – and Cold Comfort Farm territory. The threesome's psychological atrophy is precisely orchestrated through their interactions, but Osment is less skilled at inserting passages of plot exposition into this tight fabric. For example, when at the end of Act One Rose makes a passing mention of the lunatic asylum "down Digby", we know that it is only a matter of time after the interval until we hear that Charlie either is or has been sequestered there; sure enough, up it pops three or four minutes in, amid a flurry of bald references to the ageing family's various ailments and the dilapidated material and financial condition of the farm.
Into this deteriorating state of affairs walks Shirley, whose engagement to Charlie was broken off three decades earlier and whom William also admired in his quiet, despairing way; she has returned from Australia to revisit her old home and possibly wheedle an inheritance out of the Thornes for her son by Charlie, but rapidly abandons the latter project on sizing up the dire situation down on the farm. Abigail Thaw is paradoxically more comfortable with the awkwardness of the second act, as Shirley's brash Aussie grin glazes over, than with her combination of supposed innocence and quiet manipulation in the earlier scenes. She is well complemented by Geraldine Alexander as Rose, the substitute mother and self-appointed custodian of the family heritage who cannot comprehend that the best course might be other than the one which she has settled upon; only in Rose's outbursts does Alexander overplay mildly, with an uncontrollably jabbing finger.
Simon Robson's William is a muted figure of pity, dourly suppressing any sense of lost opportunities in his youth as he treads the same rut, which only grows deeper over the years. The laurels, however, go to Martin Marquez's fearsomely concentrated performance as Charlie. We may wonder why he hangs his head at such a crooked angle through the earlier scenes, scarcely looking another character in the face and even managing to walk askance; in fact, Marquez is sowing the seeds of the painfully shambling, cracked creature that Charlie will become in Act Two.
Mike Alfreds (who also directed Osment's earlier Devon plays, The Dearly Beloved in 1993 and What I Did In The Holidays last year) pursues his usual strategy of allowing his actors as free a rein as possible to develop their own interpretations, guiding them gently rather than dictating. The policy pays off, with a production which supports the script through its sporadic weaknesses to the inevitably bleak conclusion.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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