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Review: Isaac Came Home from the Mountain (Theatre 503)

Phil Ormrod's new play is a study of working class masculinity

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Isaac Came Home from the Mountain
© Helen Murray

Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son on God's orders in the Old Testament, two fathers give up on their sons in this cagey study of working class masculinity. Phil Ormrod's play argues that society's done the same.

Bobby Wainwright is a testy, testing young man – a policeman's son. Pushed to get a job by his dad John (Guy Porritt), he's given a shot at a local scrapyard by its small-time criminal owner Mike Scofield. A burly, bearded bloke's bloke, he's a drill sergeant of a boss who puts Bobby to task, whips him into shape and, ultimately, takes him under his wing. "We deal with stuff people give up on, son".

Yet that principle stops at his own son Chris, a livewire layabout lacking the discipline or sense to take on Mike's mantle. If the two lads forge a frosty friendship – playfully rucking and passing joints back and forth – it collapses into a rivalry vying for paternal attention.

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Set in a "sh*thole" town in central England, wracked by the death throes of industry and austerity, Isaac Came Home from the Mountain wonders where today's working men wash up. In a post-Blairite state that pushes young men through college towards lowly white-collar jobs – estate agents and call centres – what becomes of those better suited to an honest day's graft?

Ormrod insists they've a place beyond the scrapheap. When Mike takes Bobby up into the hills to hunt rabbits, schooling him to shoot properly, you get a glimpse of an ancient, extant male purpose: hardy, practical provision. "The whole country was like this once," he sighs. There are echoes of Falstaff and Hal in the pair and, by proving his steeliness, Bobby wins Mike's respect. It goes to waste in a society built by the soft. Toughness is criminal. It falls through the cracks.

There's a tinderbox tension to Ormrod's writing – scrappy characters with their safety catches off – and director Carla Kingham ensures it stays taut. As Bobby, Charles Furness muddles scowls and smirks to create something unhinged, yet sympathetic, while Kenny Fullwood turns Chris into a coiled spring kept in check by Ian Burfield's strong, silent and inscrutable father figure.

It's a bit like a Jez Butterworth play boiled down to its bones and brought back to reality. Ormrod shares his sense of a violence that exists just out of sight; an underworld occasionally glimpsed through civility's cracks. But by taking it seriously, reining its wildness in, he lands serious social points as tersely as Ken Loach.

However, Ormrod could learn from Loach and trust the sparseness of empty lives in dead towns to deliver up drama in their own time. Instead, he compresses the action, forcing relationships rather than letting them build, and drives towards flashpoints to ratchet up plot. Isaac feels squished at 75 minutes, where smaller, sustained dramas might have strung it out. It's a small sacrifice in a piece that twists the thumbscrews as drama and as social critique.

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