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Richard Bean’s new play at the Jerwood Downstairs at the Royal Court is set in the kitchen of the Kilham Wold Farm in East Yorkshire. In 1875 the local squire gambled this 82 acres on his new puppy outliving 94-year old tenant farmer Orlando Harrison. Thirteen years later, Lord Agar buried his border collie, and the Harrisons spent the following century and beyond struggling to maintain their fortune.
The play begins in 1914 with teenage brothers Albert and William Harrison jostling for the right to join up, and establishing through brilliantly economical, evocative and witty dialogue the current situation. The entire play takes place in this kitchen, and covers 91 years. The background knowledge of Orlando’s longevity helps us to believe that William, who has lost both legs by the beginning of Scene Two, lives until he is well over 100 years old.
Extremely well directed by Wilson Milam, Bean’s play is an epic, and is strange and marvellous. It unfolds with astonishing detail and tenderness, both in the text and in the acting, as it takes us through the running of the farm across the two World Wars, the fifties factory farming boom, the need for outside labour, the effect of Brussels and UK animal welfare developments, and the implications of technology and modern urban attitudes. In lesser hands this subject at this length would be a disaster, particularly as Bean’s own attitude seems to become clear, certainly in the last scene. But actually his skill and wit and compassionate understanding of the human characters on stage gives us a gripping, moving and informative evening. The play is also full of some very good jokes.
The hysterical laughing in the audience felt dangerous sometimes, as if we might lose the thread of those characters up there trying to play their truth, but actually it never destroyed the integrity of the piece, and the skill of the actors brought us back from the brink just in time, all the better for a good laugh and able to face the next hurdle with the Harrisons. Most deliciously dangerous in this respect was the character Titch, an outsider arriving to be interviewed for the job of Pig man, a vacancy largely brought on by the fact that Alan, William’s sort-of-nephew, was at university studying psychology rather than mucking in, as it were. Brilliantly played by Adrian Hood, Bean’s character Titch is a masterpiece. With absolute economy, Titch reveals what’s wrong, what’s right, what’s important and not least what is downright bloody hilarious about the situation in which we and the Harrison’s find ourselves. And, in the end, what is tragic.
Bean’s last scene, although perilously a farmer’s manifesto in places, leaves the Harrisons and the audience in a strange state of flux. Everything has changed, and seems eroded and corrupt and dangerous. The Squire owns the feed company, the supermarket has all the buying power, the sheds and the house must go unless a nasty burgling urban interloper can be absorbed for survival, and yet William and his niece, Laura, are somehow unbowed and the play ends in a sort of triumph. Exhausting, but worth it.
Joanna Bacon © 2005
Originally published on R&V on 17-09-05
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