In 1841, the mad poet John Clare began a four-day walk from an asylum in Epping Forest back home to Northamptonshire. That journey, or at least the idea of re-rooting oneself in one’s native background, is the template for Town, DC Moore’s contemporary parable of readjustment.
Mark Rice-Oxley’s gentle, vulnerable John returns to Northampton on the verge of a breakdown, having thrown up his job in insurance, slept rough, survived by shop-lifting and resumed his old job among the dado rails, rawl plugs and light bulbs of Home Base.
He sees friends and family with new eyes. His parents (Fred Pearson and Karen Archer) are moulded to their sitting room chairs, still scarred by the death of John’s baby sister. His old school friend Anna (Joanna Horton) becomes the agent of his rebirth and rehabilitation, while the teenaged Mary (Natalie Klamar), who’s never been anywhere, takes him on a drunken binge in the urban jungle.
Esther Richardson’s intense 90-minute production - played in a traverse arrangement on the stage of the Royal, hidden from the spookily abandoned auditorium - is a powerful study in alienation not only in its local detail and resonating anguish and anomie, but in its poetic sense of identity crisis, something that echoed through Moore’s recent insidious play about soldiers in Afghanistan, The Empire, at the Royal Court.
Having recently thrown up a job in the Ministry of Defence, and as a native of Northampton himself, Moore is obviously mining a rich seam of personal history in this play. And like all coming home stories, there’s a double edge, a love/hate relationship going on. What happened to the fields, for instance?
The writing, as well as the playing, is full of startling detail. Mary’s mum has a new boyfriend in Guildford on Facebook, and a whole world opens. A lone boy (Tom Robertson) shouts for his mate in the late-night town centre, the bricks and bells of All Souls bookending the playing area in Dawn Allsop’s evocatively minimalist design.
The shifts in friendship and dependency are not the least of the pleasures in this deeply felt play, as moving a memorial to John Clare, in its way, as was Edward Bond’s more directly historical and disturbing play The Fool over 30 years ago.