Theatre review: Pastoral, Soho Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

Thomas Eccleshare’s first play won the 2011 Verity Bargate award, so named in honour of the Soho’s founding co-director, and it arrives in London from a season at the High Tide Festival in Halesworth, Suffolk (where I saw it), full of bleak poetry and hilarious stage action.

Some of the latter is unintentionally amusing, but Steve Marmion’s production gives Eccleshare his fair share of the doubt, allowing Anna Calder-Marshall as crazy old Moll, about to be evacuated from her apartment, a full range of politically incorrect obesity remarks. And then the stage starts disintegrating, my favourite effect being that of a row of flowers thudding into the stage on darts despatched from above. 

So, what the hell is going on? Voles have been spotted in Paperchase and little weeds have sprouted around the war memorial. The countryside is on the march, like some sci-fi version of Jez Butterworth’s Jersualem and there’s a tree growing in the kitchen.

Like people huddled in the last life boat, Moll is joined by a distraught couple and their eleven year-old son, Arthur (actress Polly Frame), as well as two other young neighbours and the Ocado delivery man who belatedly turns out to be their salvation in ways he dared hardly imagine. The food chain is dramatically extended.

Things go from bad to worse as we hear of growling bears and the army building a decontamination wall. The muse of Jez Butterworth has been usurped by that of Edward Bond. Anna Calder-Marshall, who gives an endearing performance of wide-eyed nuttiness and weird, eccentric serenity in the face of all disaster, has a great gag about the difference between a hen party and a zoo: one has big hairy animals being poked by men in uniform; the other has a gift shop.

And, right on cue, a distraught blonde girl (Carrie Rock), in a pink dress and smudged make-up, walks through the audience into the play for her fairy-tale wedding and smoochy dance. She’s hailed as a porn star princess by the gallant Arthur, who consoles this remnant of the social system and extends the courtesy of friendship advocated by dear old Moll.

There’s nothing perfect about the play, and Eccleshare’s vision of post-apocalyptic dystopia is a callow mixture of absurdity and scare-mongering. But it makes for a high old time in the theatre, he can write a bit, and he’s certainly made a name for himself.

To 8 June (020 7478 0100)