If your school’s career advisor ever suggested that your future lay working in the Fens, then you’d soon wish you’d done a bit less talking and a bit more listening. Such is the harshness of the place as depicted in this beautifully crafted co production by Iron Shoes in association with NT Studio and the Finborough.
Played out on James Button’s workmanlike set, where every draw, cupboard and crate plays it’s part, Fen is a place of toil and weather. Where faceless conglomerates rule and those left behind are soon mopped up by religion or alcohol or both, the play exposes the lives of up to 21 villagers and there relationship with the landscape and each other. One of the triumphs (and there are many) of this production is that these characters are performed with a cast of just six, showing the multi-role to be a tool for purpose as well convenience.
At its simplest, the play centres on Val (Katherine Burford) and Frank (Alex Beckett) whose love for each other although sincere has an all too fatalistic aura. Their eventual defeat (or release) has an inevitability much like the weather in which they toil. A cruel combination of the past, the present, the land and its people.
Intertwining seamlessly with this love story we see the people of Fens working the land and going about their lives with a stoic hardiness, which commands respect. With this hardship though, comes humour, often hilariously and always truthful, it allows the play breathing space from its fairly bleak subject matter and stops it sliding into a peculiar Norfolk version of Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Without exception the acting is superb. From six year old Shonda to a great Gran of ninety the cast delicately stitch the world of Fen together with a no frills competence befitting of their many characters.
Fen is a difficult play to get right in so many ways, but director Ria Parry’s wonderfully deft handling builds to a brilliant pitch. The last 20 minutes of the play, a compelling cocktail or surrealism, dreams and reality, is nothing short of breath taking.