Watching Charlotte Keatley’s latest play at its première last night, that famous opening line of Larkin’s poem kept on intruding its arresting rhythm. This is a time-travelling piece, for its succession of short scenes segues between midsummer 2012 and winter 1212 with excursions into the past lives of the three central present-day characters. It does all make a sort of sense by the end, but I’m not sure that the stage is its right vehicle; film might make the joints and jolts less obtrusive.
Anna is an unhappy young woman. Sheila, her mother, and Bill, her father, carry their own loads of misery in their house above the dam which protects the reservoir which Sheila’s father designed and on which Bill himself has worked. Then there’s park ranger Jack with his own burden of twisted ambitions. 800 years previously Catherine, a young shepherdess, had chosen to become an anchoress beside the church now subsumed by the drought-battered reservoir.
Adam Wiltshire’s dam setting dwarfs the human beings who live, or have lived, in its shadow throughout Brigid Lamour's production. There’s a clever use of lighting – Jenny Cane defines Catherine’s cell very well – and of sound – Rich Walsh creates some fine 3D effects. And you certainly can’t fault the performances, with Julia St John being particularly moving as she draws us into Sheila’s troubled world. Paul Greenwood doesn’t make us like all aspects of Bill but we do learn to appreciate why the man is as he is.
In many ways the three younger actors have the more difficult roles. Anna O’Grady makes her namesake as edgy as the landscape which surrounds her while Chris Kelham as Jack and as Catherine’s confessor displays that difficult masculine area where genuine understanding and its attendant compassion can distort into dominance. Catherine is a bravura part, rather more Jeanne d’Arc than Julian of Norwich, and Faye Winter both looks and sounds right in her single-minded determination. She largely convinced me. I’m still not sure about the play itself.