The House We Grew Up In
MATILDA WNEK sees good new writing in the English Faculty Basement. A surprised choir of angels would have descended were they not put off by some iffy direction and performances.
Judith E. Wilson Studio – English Faculty, 4th-5th March, 7.30, Free Admission
Directed by Lucy Caines
If you’re free tonight and you like theatre, I can’t see what should stop you from going to see this play. That’s more than a 60% recommendation: it’s plays like this that make the star-rating system look about as unsubtle as a clap-o-meter and just as one-dimensional. And there are many dimensions to the success of this production. But for those of you without a scroll-down the most important thing to observe is that this is a serviceable production of a possibly excellent new play.
It follows a small village in a Welsh valley due to be evacuated and flooded by a government Dam-building project, alternately set on the eve of the upheaval and 20 years beforehand, intervals marked by the first and last visits to the town by Londoner Simon Vaughan (Tom Powell).
The skill of writer Josh Coles-Riley at managing audience expectation is evident. We are never too far ahead of the action of the script, and often so tightly in sync with its pace that he is able to drop revelations into the room with the control of an expert.
And, importantly, the plan of these revelations is impressively well-composed: as the significance of ‘present’ moments is gradually clarified by our cumulative understanding of the past, the richness of the plot becomes increasingly satisfying and holistic. This method is particularly testing, of course, because we take it on trust that the high drama of early scenes, explanation pending, is justified.
The fevered reaction to the news that Simon Vaughan is to return is unearned at the beginning, but paid back later. This is a recipe for disappointment, but any anticlimax is the fault of character development rather than the thoughtfully-constructed plot.
The measured unfolding of narrative was unfortunately not matched by equivalent control of the characters’ emotional development. The spot-lit monologues, while useful for retrospective, were a strikingly crass tool for conveying the impact of events. Some early lines were jarringly trite exposition. When the wild Rhiannon bleats ‘I’ll not be beholden to anyone, don’t try and tie me down, all the other boys try to own me’ we are watching an archetype, not a character. While the structure was provided, some lines were disappointingly, nakedly instrumental.
Having said that, it was amazing how the writing became so variously credible and weak depending on the performances. This is one to restore your faith in the importance of careful acting in small pieces. Emma Stirling’s Rhiannon for the most part kept weighty articulations of love from being contrived; her simple and unapologetic accounts desperately declared rather than unnecessarily recounted. Becky Jones’ Dilys also kept the writing grounded with her winning humility.
Indeed, the ‘simple’ characters gave the writing the most credibility – it was easier to accept the occasional clumsily explanatory lines from unassuming positions. Louise Barker’s ‘never-been-quite-right’ Judith largely sustained a mystery that the frankness of her lines might have denied, though the embarrassingly laboured explanation of a ‘lonely lamb’ metaphor was an unfortunate ending.
I hate to say it, but there wasn’t nearly enough depth to Tom Powell’s Simon in the lead, who at best was stuck in an unfortunate pattern of intonation and at worst didn’t understand his part. I felt like his monologues, in their recounting of his emotional state, were explanations of what his performance might have conveyed alone if it were better. It’s annoying, because it felt as though he could have been good with clearer direction.
I suppose what I’m doing with three stars is expressing the frustration of watching a play done at 60% of its potential. In the intimacy of the English Faculty basement, it is very affecting. Though much of the emotional impact was oddly explicit, the descriptions resonated absolutely with at least my versions of love, guilt and nostalgia, so perhaps that means it’s allowed. Still, bad Welsh accents, excessive length and some weak performances bring this production back down to earth, where there aren’t so many stars.