Forget the joke about how many actors it takes to screw in a light bulb, and consider instead how many stagehands it must have taken to screw in the masses of light bulbs that hang louringly over Rufus Norris's superb revival of Afore Night Come, the David Rudkin play that caused a scandal when premiered by the RSC in 1962. In Ian MacNeil's brilliant design, a Black Country pear orchard is reimagined as a host of these flickering, suitably pear-shaped objects, dangling low over a ramshackle, raised stage that is composed of irregular sheets of hardboard.
This is no picture of a spacious, bucolic idyll, fanned by sweet zephyrs, but a curiously crushed and claustrophobic environment that induces instant unease. Some might argue the horror that gathers in Rudkin's drama would emerge more effectively from a deceptive, naturalistic setting. But, as we shall see, the justification for MacNeil's approach is that it equivalently extends the possibilities of tension in the second half of the piece, so that it cannot be accused of over-anticipating the hideous climax.
At first, we seem to be in the relatively safe territory of a "work play", such as David Storey's The Contractor. We watch the everyday activities of a group of casual fruit pickers who are badly organised ("Unions? What's the use of a effing union? Stop the fruit growing, can they?") and hard-pressed, with 600 boxes to fill before night. A summer-vacation job had given Rudkin first-hand knowledge of these folk, and as they chaff and wrangle with each other – their number now increased by Birmingham teddy boy and a self-conscious undergraduate with a tarted-up accent – the play has the authentic smack of lived experience, and evinces an extraordinary ear for the sometimes almost impenetrable local dialect.
Like a slowly tightening noose in Norris's expertly paced and shaded production, Afore Night Come moves by stealthy degrees from surface realism to ritual horror and atavistic violence. A prime scapegoat arrives in the tattered form of Ewan Hooper's excellent Irish tramp, replete with dark glasses and a tea-cloth burnoose and blustering with the kind of baseless assumptions about his own superiority that make him first cousin to Pinter's Davies (the play could almost be retitled The Peartaker).
All bony, disturbed intensity in Laurence Mitchell's transfixing performance, a religious maniac youth, who is on release from a mental institution, spouts of being cleansed by the blood of the lamb and tries to rescue the undergraduate, on whom he seems to have twisted sexual designs, from the impending doom.
It's at this thunder-rumbling point that the set becomes deeply unnerving. When the rain falls and a deafening helicopter sprays the crops with pesticide, electricity and water are brought into risky proximity. A sulphurous sizzle keeps passing through those overhead bulbs, and you begin to half-wonder whether perhaps a real-life accident has been scheduled to coincide with onstage catastrophe – that bloody perverted rite which, as staged here, convinces you that primitive evil can arise from even the most banal and ordinary of situations.
On the particular night that I saw the show, there was an evidently deranged lady in the audience who persisted in laughing uproariously at arbitrary moments, as though she were watching a quite different piece. This aroused the competitive instincts of some of the younger spectators who, for a short spell, began to cackle at equally nonsensical junctures. It says a great deal for the power of Norris's production, with its terrific, meticulously detailed ensemble playing, that it triumphantly survived these distractions.
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