Review: On Bear Ridge (Royal Court)

National Theatre Wales and the Royal Court co-produce Ed Thomas’ new play

Rakie Ayola (Noni), Jason Hughes (The Captain), and Rhys  Ifans (John Daniel)
Rakie Ayola (Noni), Jason Hughes (The Captain), and Rhys Ifans (John Daniel)
© Mark Douet

Visions of a post-apocalyptic future set in a butcher's are a surprisingly regular occurrence – Lucy Kirkwood's Tinderbox or Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Delicatessen are examples. But there's something hauntingly novel about Ed Thomas' new play On Bear Ridge, which transfers to London after its initial run at the Sherman Theatre in Wales. A (quite literally) meaty yet slow-burn of a one-act production, the show is set on Bear Ridge, a secluded and mountainous area in an unnamed (yet likely Welsh) country, where roaring jet engines soar overhead while lives crumble below.

Thomas' text is a slightly oddball exploration of loss – the loss of family, the loss of society and the loss of language – that under less careful stewardship could have quite quickly become stale. But Thomas and co-director Vicky Featherstone let the various elements simmer, bringing out flavours and texture in a sparse script that rightly knows when to leave things unsaid – often letting the hollow silence of Mike Beer's sound design do the talking.

The entire experience is set inside the dishevelled, abandoned shop of John Daniel (Rhys Ifans) and his wife Noni (Rakie Ayola), who prepare ever-dwindling stock for customers that will never visit. John Daniel claims to be the last speaker of a dying language, proudly clinging onto a heritage that feels as immaterial as the walls of Cai Dyfan's shifting set. The couple's dreary lives, flitting in and out of lucidity, are upended by the arrival of a gun-toting Captain (Jason Hughes), pockmarked and clenching a loaded revolver.

Ifans, sporting a spotty gilet and quirky bowler hat, brings all the unhinged gusto you'd expect from an actor with Xenophilius Lovegood, Spike from Notting Hill and Lear's Fool among his credits. But it's in his quieter, sedate moments that the sing-song-esque lyricism of his performance emanates a heartwrenching melancholy. He's matched beat-for-beat by Ayola's Noni, touchingly earnest but stern – she delivers a monologue about trust with an abrupt, calculating ferocity that cuts through the show's sedate tone like a hot knife through mutton.

Thomas' points are keenly felt – in a world beset by conflict, rapid industrialisation and political wrangling, cultures can get lost in the midst of turbulence. It's no surprise that the population of Welsh speakers continues to decline. On Bear Ridge is a slow show and at times the unending tranquillity saddles the tragedy. But it's constantly affecting to watch a genealogy, a heritage, gradually perish on the side of an isolated mountain, swallowed by the snow. A well-wrought, cautionary tale.