Theatre News

”Ivy Tiller: Vicar’s Daughter, Squirrel Killer” at RSC’s The Other Place – review

The Other Place, Stratford’s so-called ‘engine room’ of new writing for the RSC, has been out of action for the best part of three years, so there’s a real air of anticipation about the two plays finally on offer as part of its Mischief Festival. The first to be unveiled is this delightfully titled black comedy by award-winning writer Bea Roberts.

Set in her native West Country, it introduces the driven but wayward Ivy in the wake of her alcoholic mother’s death, already sidelined by society and scouring the fringes of her village community – literally and metaphorically – for a cause. In Ivy’s case, this turns out to be a campaign to eradicate the invading non-native grey squirrel from her little piece of Devon, protecting and nurturing instead the endangered red variety.

The play script’s rubric suggests there’s something in Roberts’s subtext about the struggle of the outsider, the misguided mission for indigenous purity and the dark side of the rural idyll, but if so it’s largely subsumed by her urge to entertain. The comedy is placed front and centre, both in the characters she creates and in the situations she traps them in.

There are some good lines and some amusing scenarios but the characterisations are largely too thinly-drawn to sustain any underlying message. Jenny Rainsford’s Ivy is more complex – brought up by her stern, unapproachable vicar father, and a stranger to drink and swearing – but even her backstory is fleshed out barely enough to justify her increasingly unbelievable actions.

The six-strong cast play a variety of roles, from farmers and teachers to Ivy’s cousin Gary (Nathan McMullan), just released from prison and tasked to look after the volatile Ivy. Their relationship is one of the most believable and touching, while rustic caricatures circulate around them.

Like the playwright, director Caitlin McLeod focuses everything on Ivy, and Rainsford’s quirky performance makes for some interesting and comic moments. McMullan is grounded and makes a valuable foil for Ivy, while Alex Bhat as her squirrel-shooting colleague Reece makes the most of his role to wring every laugh from some slow-motion action sequences.

Milla Clarke’s design has a field day with everything from village fete trifles to a stuffed squirrel ‘tableau’, while Ivy’s back-room workshop, hung with hides and dissecting tools, has just the right air of serial-killer chic. There are some terrific effects, too, with atmospheric lighting and sound from Elliot Griggs and Oli Soames respectively.

At nearly 90 minutes straight through, it could probably do with a little tightening up in places, but then isn’t that what the experimental playground of The Other Place is intended for – to try out new and unpredictable things? On that score, Ivy Tiller makes an intriguing, if not entirely successful specimen.