A review by Richard J Thornton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

 

Iron Shoes presents

 

Fen

Written by Caryl Churchill

 

Directed by Ria Parry

 

Finborough Theatre

 

 1   - 26 March 2011

 

Almost more gauntlet to an aspiring director than solid cohesive theatre, Churchill’s lesser-known Fen is a collage of familial battles and mass resignation to depression which has to work hard not to drag the audience down into its gloomy bog. Splatters of searing writing peek through from the convoluted plot, and the actors illuminate the characters’ lilting layers, but the direction loses its way in the marshes, and the face-to-face audience feel abandoned by an earth-covered traverse stage which seemed to offer so much.

Fen is an exploration of life on the British Fens in 1980s: farmland is becoming more precious, foreign investors are disturbing the so-called idyll and families struggle to escape the monotony and unhappiness of a life bound to an unforgiving terrain. The difficult thing is that the production is so muddled that one can’t learn any of this until an hour into the play, but this isn’t due to dramatic exposition. The opening sees a group of women picking potatoes by hand more reminiscent of 1908 than the greed gobbling '80s. Pockets of '80s pop that intrude later feel absurd until you realise this is in fact the era of the play. The traverse staging creates great tension in the power-play tete-a-tetes, but due to a lack of continuity in the scene structure, the stage becomes a distracting burden, stretching the audience’s concentration rather than stimulating it.

There are some intricate themes hidden in the swamps of this play. Churchill’s portrayal of how children deal with an uninspiring future is inventive; their a cappella ‘I want to be a nurse when I grow up’ and playful-cum-nasty tormenting of the madwoman Nell sing through to an audience much in need of some buoyant relief. The storytelling episodes are other gems which focus the audience and give texture and direction to this character-heavy work. Parry’s choice to use only six actors may have been a wise one financially, but in a play with twenty three characters, it turns out to be a challenge too far. Despite some distinguishing characterisation between mother and daughter roles the representation is too blurred and scenes too rapid to build up any compassion for the characters. The anti-heroine Val, perhaps the only character with enough stage time to grow emotion for, eked nothing - she neither felt impassioned enough to be with her children, nor to be with her lover, let alone the melodramatic request for assisted suicide in the dénouement.

Nevertheless, scattered amongst the issues between script, direction and production the actors mustered some gritty, human and silencing performances. Alex Beckett was the show stealer, mildly helped by being the only male on stage, he slipped so seamlessly into each of his four characters that his individual beard and hairstyle was no hindrance to the way he immediately portrayed the age, class and emotional well-being of his characters merely through posture and pronunciation. Nicola Harrison’s Angela and Deb were two of the most engaging and attractive beings on stage, the former through her sheer malignance and the latter through a Napoleon-Dynamite-inspired hairstyle and electrified eyes. Rosie Thomson also deserves a mention due to the calm and ease she brought to the roles she fills; there’s nothing rushed here, and Thomson lets the script do the work in delineating her character before crystallising it with some choice personality indicators.

From a set by James Button which initially offers such richness, fixed location and textured warmth, the play tumbles between scenes covering themes of social entrapment, hopeless fantasy and community fragmentation. But despite strong, if a little under-imagined lighting from David W Kidd, and helpful dry-ice special effects, the play fails to absorb those who watch it.

Perhaps with such multiplicity in the characters and plot, a simpler stage and more aggressive direction would have aligned the play into a more digestible experience. Fen has an over-weight script that could do more with less, and despite a valiant effort from Iron Shoes to stamp their vision into it, this production leaves the audience wishing for an interval that never comes.

 

 

 

 

Box Office: www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk  / 0844 847 1652
Finborough Theatre
118 Finborough Road
London
SW10 9ED
Tuesday to Saturday Evenings at 7.30pm.
Sunday Matinees at 3.00pm.
Saturday Matinees at 3.00pm (from 12 March 2011)
Tickets: £13/9
 

 


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