Theatre Flesh and Blood Northcott Theatre, Exeter

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There have been many attempts to put Devon farm life on stage, starting with Eden Philpotts through to more contemporary versions: but nothing has taken the pulse as accurately as Philip Osment's new play Flesh and Blood. The play shows the decline of Devon farming over the past 30 years, advances reasons for the prevalence of suicides in the farming community. It's a stark tragedy of work driven by tradition and history, the burden of continuing a family business when modern methods have put farms in hock to the banks, and when sparse periods and losses by disease tip the family and finance over the brink. In this sense the play could not be more timely.

The story starts at the funeral of a father which leaves Rose, Charles and William to carry on an already declining business. They mortgage the farm to get a modern milking parlour and then are hit by disease that reduces their herd to an uneconomic unit. There are personal battles when Charles, the youngest, wants to sell his share to marry Shirley and start up on his own. Charles's attempt to break away is foiled by the scheming of his sister. Rose is immersed in tradition, in ritual, in maintaining dead values, in the struggle to preserve an individual rural outlook. This unreasoning, uneducated, superstitious view of life exercises a vice- like grip. All this is conveyed in Osment's spare monosyllabic dialogue, in which every disconnected word helps to form a mosaic of meaning.

Flesh and Blood is a triumph for Osment, also for the Method and Madness Company, directed with loving precision by Mike Alfreds. These taciturn exchanges and inarticulate outbursts need timing and conviction. Geraldine Alexander (Rose), Martin Marquez (Charles), Simon Robson (William) and Abigail Thaw (as the catalyst Shirley) bring their characters to earthy, believable life. The interplay between these four can bring lumps to the throat. The struggle of half-civilised, half-educated innocence in the hands of forces too big and too complicated to comprehend. These characters are full of past regrets, missed opportunities; when rural craftiness has not been a match for the onward march of finance. With characters as strong as these they write their own script. Flesh and Blood is strong drama with small acting pieces weaving into a heartfelt whole, in which the ending is shocking but inevitable. This is inspired acting.

The direction is of an equally high order. The change of day and night by flooding a huge backcloth screen, the off-stage farm noises, the set, by Paul Dart, full of past glories, now seedy and shabby. All three elements - script, acting and direction - combine to produce a remarkably true new play presented with strength and conviction by a talented company. The first night audience, at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, last week, roared their approval.

n On tour to Poole (6-11 May); Warwick (20-25 May); Oxford (3-8 June); and then as part of a repertory season at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith (10 June to 27 July)