Canadian writing has largely been ignored in British theatre, to its great detriment. Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy at the Finborough Theatre shows us why the stories and secrets underpinning these Canadian-dwelling characters are worth revealing, layer by layer.
A fresh-faced Miles (Simon Lee Phillips) arrives at a farm near Clinton, Ontario in the summer of 1972, to watch and learn from its inhabitants so that he might devise various scenes for his upcoming play, The Farm Show. Based on a true story, the two intriguing farm-dwellers, Angus (John Bett) and Morgan (Neil McCaul), bemusedly agree to let Miles observe them in exchange for some hard labour on the farm.
Angus, a mathematical genius, is suffering from acute short-term memory loss as a result of the war, and is largely dependent on Morgan for his comfort and sanity. Morgan gets his kicks through telling porkies to the gullible Miles, and wryly ordering him to complete the most inane tasks about the farm, to the audiences’ glee.
The fruits of Miles’ first few days of observation result in a surface understanding of farm-life: he attempts to challenge the “bourgeois theatrical cow” with a more naturalistic portrayal of Daisy, and devises the “Dance of the Hay Bale Stacker” after a brow-beaten day of hard labour. Yet it is only when he stumbles across the crux of Angus and Morgan’s relationship that Miles has a story worth telling, as he begins to piece together fragments of a forgotten history, and unearth the painful past of these two lonely farmers.
This three-hander is delicately and sympathetically approached by director Eleanor Rhode, who skillfully draws out the humour within each relationship, and creates an immersive world which the audience can simply sink into. The actors are frank in their depiction of each character; nothing is overdrawn or laboured, the cast work as a complete ensemble, and are utterly exposed and vulnerable at times, aided by the set-up of the theatre in-the-round.
Reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, The Drawer Boy potentially reveals what might have happened had George and Lennie bought their dream farm: the reality of co-dependency, continual struggles for status, the real motives behind secrecy, and the sheer love that radiates through what are ostensibly cruel actions. This remarkable show is frank and loyal to its characters, honours the truth behind the situation, and ultimately seems to ask the question: is ignorance bliss? Or simply deception?