Chris Dunkley’s Smallholding isn’t comfortable viewing and nor should it be. It should, however, be simple enough to find sympathy for at least one of the two characters, but this isn’t possible either, for different reasons.
Andy is a heroin addict. He’s tried to kick it but has failed. His addiction has brought both he and his girlfriend, Jen, to the brink of financial and emotional ruin. Jen’s family have thrown them one last lifeline in the form of a smallholding on the edge of their farm, with the intention of letting the couple make a go of it. However, as is the case with all addictions, be it drugs, sex, gambling or alcohol, things are never as straightforward as they seem. Andy’s promises are as empty and flimsy as their new home and Jen’s love for him makes her turn a blind eye to the deceits that are perfectly obvious to the rest of us.
Chris New brings a chillingly bipolar Andy to the High Tide festival and, right from the off, we can see that his brief moments of clarity are as superficial as his protestations of being “clean”. What does Jen (Matti Houghton) see in him? As is often the case, she believes her love will be strong enough to fix what’s wrong with him and that the newly reborn couple can reclaim their toddler daughter from her foster parents.
Houghton is an accomplished actor, last seen at High Tide in 2010 in Richard Twyman’s post-apocalyptic thrillerDitch. She gives Jen a vulnerability that is strangely down-to-earth and it’s only as the play progresses, we find out why. Theatre has the power to make its audience elated or depressed, often both throughout a well-structured piece. The lighter moments in Smallholding are few and far between and yet there are some. A surprise guest appearance raises a giggle, as does Jen's frenzied attack on a parsnip but, given the context of these incidents, any mirth is quickly usurped by horror, especially when it becomes apparent just how low junkie Andy has sunk.
Patrick Sandford directs consummately, delivering a no-holes-barred serving of discomfort to those who have been both affected and bypassed by drugs culture. But a word of caution: This is not a tale for those looking for a happy ending.
If there are any criticisms of Dunkley’s script, it’s that the opening scene contains a little too much overt exposition. Also, the final scene – without giving away spoilers – is a tad unsatisfying. Other than that, Smallholding, is a perfect example of small-scale, tour-able production.