In the year of our Queen's diamond jubilee, and the 2012 Derby Day just a few weeks away, it seems as good a time as any for Salisbury Playhouse to revive Howard Brenton's 1977 play Epsom Downs, which looks back at that day, in the year of the silver jubilee. Written to highlight the "suspense, anguish and triumph"; of race day not only for the jockeys, trainers and well-to-do in the enclosures, but as seen through the eyes of the every-day folk crowded on to Epson Downs, the hardened gamblers and bookies, the travellers and even the horses (yes, really!) too.
Crammed full with a myriad of characters betraying the various all-too-recognisable traits and aspirations of the Great British public, this seems, on the face of it an unusual choice for new Artistic Director Gareth Machin's directorial debut at the Playhouse. With only the flimsiest of narrative threads to bind the characters together, Epsom Downs is largely a collection of vignettes; brief episodes of social commentary, connected only by the event that has brought all these characters to this one place in time. However it is a very cleverly chosen showcase for Machin's directorial skills, including some spectacular set pieces - the race itself being triumphant and brilliantly executed - and more subtle touches, such as the litter that slowly builds on the stage throughout, and the tangible anticipation that increases during the second act in particular.
The fact that many of the "episodes" fail to hit the mark is in no way down to the direction, which is first rate, nor the performers - the nine-strong ensemble cast are superb. The problem, for me, is with the play itself. Some of Brenton's characters are created with such broad strokes that it is difficult to see the person behind and so impossible to empathise with them. There is a lack of fondness for the characters in the writing and it is too harsh for gentle "nostalgic" satire, but neither is it savage or self-aware enough to satisfy today's more cynical and politically informed tastes. A product of 1977 clearly, but a bit past its sell by date now.
The set, designed by Tom Rogers, makes best use of the Playhouse's traditional stage layout and manages to suggest the contours and sweeps of the Epsom Downs in a very limited space. And the Derby Day theme is extended out into the theatre foyer, where patrons are able to "place bets" on televised races played during the intermission. Every effort has been made to create that "special event" feeling which audiences will enjoy regardless of any deficiencies in the play itself. Full marks, as always, for the creative team at the Playhouse!