Playwright Richard Bean has long been cultivating a fertile soil by chronicling working lives in such previous plays for the Royal Court as Toast and Under the Whaleback, and playing with shifting time frames within the same location in another, Honeymoon Suite, produced by English Touring Theatre at the Royal Court last year. Now he combines these two strands and reaps his richest dramatic harvest yet in a play appropriately entitled Harvest.
There are echoes, too, of other Royal Court writers like Peter Gill and Arnold Wesker in the minute attention to the ordinary traffic of extraordinary, but often not articulated, emotion that lies buried within, and the daily business of work that drives the characters.
Although undermined, to my mind at least, by one scene too many, this is also already the new play of the year so far. With its beautifully textured, multi-layered storytelling and the warmth and wit of its characterisations, it stretches across 91 years in seven long scenes to poignantly reveal the passing not just of lives but of a way of life, too.
In a weathered, remote East Yorkshire farmhouse, an elegiac but not sentimental drama unfolds across key points of four generations of the family that own it, and the constant pressures they’re under, both from outside and inside, in trying to farm the land they live on. From the first scene, set in 1914 as the army requisition five or their seven horses for the war effort and one of the two brothers decides to enrol in the army himself, Bean expertly conjures an entire world, fully attuned to the rhythm of the land.
Wilson Milam's production is alive to every nuance and subtlety of this heartfelt and captivating play, with an ensemble of superb actors that inhabit it completely. Particular standouts in charting the passage of time are: Matthew Dunster, who ages from 19 to an improbably perky 110 in the course of the play as William; Sian Brooke as Laura, a niece of the wife of William's brother Albert who comes to stay in every way; and Jochum Ten Haaf (last seen in London in the title role of Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton), who first comes to the farm as a German POW in the Second World War and ends up helping to run it after he marries Laura. Comic honours, however, go to Adrian Hood's Titch, a hired hand who comes to tend the pigs.
It’s only in the final scene that Bean's assured grasp starts to unravel, as the way of life itself has. Director Milam, who has previously directed Martin McDonagh's most physically brutal play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, probably enjoys this darker retributive finale. But for me, it would have been far more effective if the play had ended a scene earlier. It's nevertheless a considerable play, and not to be missed.
- Mark Shenton