Jez Butterworth burst onto the scene in 1995 with his Olivier Award-winning Mojo, set in a rock ‘n’ roll club in Fifties Soho. It was seven years before his next play, 2002’s The Night Heron, unfolded in a cottage deep in the Fens, where the characters sparred in the near-impenetrable local dialect. Now, Butterworth has returned to the Royal Court stage – under the direction once again of the outgoing artistic director Ian Rickson – with a play that falls somewhere in between those two earlier pieces, being both distinctly urban and rural at the same time.
In The Winterling, fighter planes from the nearby RAF base frequently blast by overhead the dilapidated farmhouse (design by Ultz) on Dartmoor where Robert Glenister’s West awaits a visit from two of his old London underworld associates. But the jet engines aren’t the only thing that disturb the peace. When Wally (Jerome Flynn) shows up, it’s not with old mutual mate Jerry, who’s apparently jumped to his death in the Thames, but with his spivvy, sort-of stepson Patsy (Daniel Mays).
None of the three – not to mention the Pinteresque tramp Draycott (Roger Lloyd Pack) or squaddie-mad squatter Lue (Sally Hawkins), who also put in appearances – seem to know exactly why they’re there. Or, in any case, they’re not willing to share their reasons very freely with the others (or the audience).
While the sinister situation is set up well in Act One, proceedings in the subsequent two acts – in which the action rewinds a year and then returns to the still-murky present - don’t generate enough drama or clarity to satisfy either want. By the end, you’re left feeling slightly baffled, not just about the characters’ pasts and motivations, but by what Butterworth is trying to say through them. Maybe he hadn’t quite decided himself. In the Court’s 50th anniversary programme, The Winterling was after all a last-minute replacement for a scheduled revival of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine; at points, particularly after the interval, it feels like Butterworth may have rushed to deliver the manuscript on time.
On the plus side, the playwright re-asserts his great gift for dialogue. Each of his characters gets a high-octane diatribe or two – on matters ranging from badgers to passport forms, torture, roadside service stations and the advantages of London over the countryside – all of which elicit deserved belly laughs from the audience.
In the cast, Daniel Mays is outstanding as the initially bolshy but increasingly nervous, nose-bleeding young sidekick Patsy. Even more than the others, he makes the most of his monologues, but also invests even the briefest of toss-away lines with an expressive physicality; you don’t want to take your eyes off him. Flynn and Glenister also impress as they jockey to out-menace one another and reclaim past superiorities.
- Terri Paddock