Theatre by the Lake production of The Winterling.
Theatre by the Lake production of The Winterling.
© Keith Pattison

Jez Butterworth's 2006 play begins with a stark culture clash: a sound montage of low overhead jets and rural animal noises open the play where West, an incongruously sharp-suited Londoner, is throwing a local tramp (Draycott) out of a semi-derelict farmhouse in Devon in the middle of winter.

West is clearing the place for his meeting with an associate from his old manor, Wally, who turns up with his ‘son in law' Patsy. Their arrival and verbal sparring takes up the rest of the first half. The second half reels back to the previous winter.

West, on the run, crashes what was then the tramp's bolt-hole, and meets a young woman, Lue, who is still staying there the following year when West catches up with his past. We then jump forward to the morning after the night before; Wally's intentions become clear as he tells West to kill Patsy (he's also told Patsy to kill West). West instead clears Patsy and Lue out of the way, and the play ends with him waiting, axe across his lap, to see whether Wally will come back.

Butterworth makes no secret of his admiration for Pinter, and this atmospheric piece is full of the earlier writer's trademark edgy comic menace. Director Jez Pike, perhaps conscious of the potential for too many significant pauses, ensures that the dialogue between the city boys cracks past at an exhilarating pace in the first half.

Liam Smith's antsy swagger as West holds the stage and Henry Devas's Patsy has a balls-of-the-feet amphetamine energy. Their mutual interrogation about the fine details of the local fort turns into a dizzying tour-de-force of breakneck patter, and their intelligently pointed performances grip throughout.

Alan Suri's Wally is a beat behind most of the time, and lacks the physical presence of the other two. Jennifer English's Lue has a riveting scene with West in which neither speaks, locking eyes across a room during a monologue by James Duke's tramp Draycott.

Draycott's rambling monologues are the least successful element of the play. In a play loaded with subtextual ambiguity and threat, with him what you see is pretty much what you get, and the focus of the play blurs as a result.

Anna Pilcher Dunn's set and Jo Dawson's lighting design nicely suggest a faintly organic dereliction, and despite the fizz of much of the dialogue it is worth keeping your ears open for the subtleties of Maura Guthrie's sound design.

The Winterling is an intriguingly ambivalent, and often very funny, play, with some fine central performances.

The play continues at the Theatre by the Lake, Keswick until 5 November.