I feel like a spoilsport, a rotten apple in the barrel of acclaim that greeted Nell Leyshon’s second play a year or so ago. Even then, I was bemused by the critical reception. Leyshon was awarded the Evening Standard most promising playwright gong and now Lucy Bailey’s dutiful, humourless and catastrophically slow and uninformative production has been revived with a new cast for a national tour.
Like David Rudkin’s brilliant shocker Afore Night Come, the setting is an orchard, only in Somerset, not Essex, and the atmosphere similarly doom-laden, only to no great purpose. The apples are rotting. The cider press is unused. The farm is about to be sold. The head of the family has just died. The estranged daughter has returned after three years away. And there is still an eternity to endure until the interval.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as keen on theatrical atmospherics as the next Somerset-loving scrumpy swiller. And Mike Britton’s steeply raked ash heap of an orchard is a design delight, in its way, with its smouldering embers, red glowing rim, carpet of apples slipping here and there under the big double bed and up to the raised doorway to the outside world. A solitary light bulb hangs from the - what, exactly? – ceiling or sky, and after the interval, when we venture al fresco, clusters of barren, twiggy branches sit like crows’ nests on top of three forlorn, dilapidated ladders.
As an installation, it’s as impressive a theatrical concoction as you will find outside of Tate Modern. Unfortunately, the onstage poem of sterility, blight and bad luck is equally static and unchanging. Old Irene irons her dead husband’s suit and polishes his shoes so he’ll look his best in the coffin. Her simple-minded brother, Len, hangs around like a ghost while her suppressed son, Roy, twitches uncomfortably before, during, and beyond the point where we learn of his thwarted romance with Linda.
Everyone talks in elliptical half sentences, as if prompting each other to say something meaningful that never really arrives. The one thing we do gather is that local lass Linda has been seen off by the dragon-like Irene whom that honest support player Veronica Roberts plays nothing like a dragon. At least, first time round, Anna Calder-Marshall gave the role some wellie and a sort of wild-eyed, haggard madness. It is as if the director and the actor have here conspired in a “no frills” approach to let the play speak for itself. But as the play has nothing of interest to say, this proves an unwise tactic.
Similarly, before, Alan Williams created a strange, beguiling, hypnotic figure of countryside abnormality in Len, whereas Graham Turner plays him open-faced and overtly stupid. This is only interesting for about ten seconds. Jonathan McGuinness is similarly stranded as the hopeless Roy, while the returning prodigal, Brenda, is played by Lisa Stevenson as an obvious silly sausage whose supposed voice of reason in the introvert domestic gloom sounds like the chatter of a bossy social worker.
The most engaging aspect of the show is the sarcastically whirring folk music arranged by Nell Catchpole, implying a country life elsewhere and in former times and in fact suggesting another play entirely to which this one is merely a sombre, unattractively po-faced footnote. Unlike in Beckett, there is no life in this living death, cold comfort down on the farm, and no nooks or crannies of Chekhovian hope or humanity.
- Michael Coveney