Jeremy Malies on the South Bank
8 May 2018
End-on, in-the-round with a promenade option and now a thrust. The new £12m Bridge Theatre has been protean for its first three plays. Writer Barney Norris (still only 31) is equally versatile having made his mark as both novelist and dramatist. Nightfall has a broadly similar rural setting to his plays Eventide and Echo’s End but lacks the technical virtuosity of these plays or his five-star hit Visitors.
Claire Skinner and Ukweli Roach. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
There are Chekhovian motifs throughout in a plot that sees a large farm being bought up and turned into houses and the young characters yearning to escape. The year is 2016 and we see the characters on four evenings. Just for once, intense ‘big agra’ prairie-style arable farming has proved unprofitable. The feckless heir to the estate, Ryan (played by Sion Daniel Young) is so desperate for money that he allows his friend to syphon oil from a pipeline running across the farm. The friend is ex-con Pete, played by Ukweli Roach, who is a RADA product and star of NBC television series Blindspot.
Both actors are credible in their roles but Norris’s script falls short when the big speeches concerning life-changing dilemmas fail to emerge naturally from preceding dialogue. Director Laurie Sansom (a writer himself) might have eased this process. I had the suspicion that Norris is more concerned with the decay (and pending redevelopment) of the land than with the characters. The action is in the Hampshire coastal basin, an area where I was raised and which I now cover for the regional pages of this magazine. The company should have employed a dialect coach. The actors – Claire Skinner as the matriarch is the worst offender when occasionally reminding herself to roll an ‘r’ – speak with faux yokel accents of a kind I’ve never heard and which are likely to offend people of all demographics from the area.
Ophelia Lovibond, Sion Daniel Young and Ukweli Roach.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
The closely observed set by Rae Smith is first-rate with the pipeline predominating and many skilful suggestions as to the massive extent of the land. Smith has also created an exquisite cyclorama that I took to be grazing marshes leading to an alluvial plain. The thrust configuration made everybody in the stalls feel they were inhabiting the family’s space to the extent that we could have stepped in and shared the barbecue. But sharing emotions and empathizing was a different thing and a smaller studio space would have worked better. Fitfully, Skinner makes her character luminous (dancing alone to Fleetwood Mac was a highpoint) but she’s not helped by the many platitudes on the theme of parenting.
The plight of the rural poor is an interesting topic that is seldom explored in British drama though Clara Brennan has done it more effectively writing about the north. Think Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem without the energy and the profusion of gags, and a first act that is excessively slow-burn. Topical references such as discussion of Brexit enliven the closing scenes and Norris excels in relating macro issues to personal lives. There are many merits in the piece but they rarely coalesce. Norris may return to the theme of rural decay later with more success.