Theatre: A merry dance, full of incident but little action
Wednesday 14 January 1998
New End Theatre, London
As the house lights dim, the wistful opening strain of Vaughan Williams's In the Fen Country steals across the auditorium, tuning us in to the play's location. Throughout , playwright Barbara Hartridge uses hymns, popular songs and piano tunes to punctuate her 1940s East Anglian tale, but this is no musical. Nor is it some peaceful, rural idyll.
Martha is eking out an existence in a tithe cottage with her rough farm- labourer husband Bob, a teenage son and daughter and "the little 'uns". She's desperate to keep their heads above the poverty line but one morning she unpacks a suitcase filled with hand-me-down clothes and discovers a flapper-style Twenties dress. More music floats in as she clasps it to her body and dreams of her dancing days long gone, worlds away from the drab domesticity that surrounds her. Yet, as she snaps guiltily out of her reverie, we realise that her past not only betokens pleasure, but also secret pain.
Despite all this, the family seem to be muddling along happily until the day when Bob throws his job away in a fit of pride, thus forcing them to up sticks. The first 20 minutes or so are oddly engrossing as Hartridge tenderly paints in the details of her picture of harsh domestic life but, unfortunately, she and her director John Adams cannot handle her own plot.
Over-ripe melodrama swoops in as figures from the past haunt the stage, threatening to expose Martha's dark secret. We learn of a child, born out of wedlock, who has been brought up by an aunt, but the thriller-like structure over-balances everything. Crowded with incident, it's full of activity but lacks dramatic action. The arc of the play sags with unnecessary scenes and the plot revelations are clumsy. Even when the cat is let out of the bag, nothing is resolved, which leaves us with a continuing soap opera. Hence, despite an attempt at a climactic finish, the play stops abruptly rather than ends.
The unforced acting in the principal roles, however, is excellent. Mark Wing-Davey brings weight and a threatening presence to the inarticulate husband and Adams coaxes excellent, truthful performances from Scott Hickman and Philippa Stanton as the children who, tossed between the demands of a violent father and guilt-ridden mother, grow up fast from carefree youth to fearful adolescence. In the pivotal role of Martha, Amelda Brown bravely refuses to sentimentalise her character and steers a sure and effective course, all the more impressive considering the play's lurching tone.
In the premiere of Caryl Churchill's Fen, Brown once gave a memorable performance as another struggling mother, but it's not just that coincidence which lends this production a sense of deja vu. It's as if the atmosphere of Fen has been crossed with the hidden-child plot of Churchill's Top Girls. Sadly, lacks the skill and dramatic imagination of either. Sincerity, effective dialogue and good acting are not enough to keep a play afloat.
To 1 February, New End Theatre, Hampstead, London NW3. Booking: 0171- 794 0022
Life & Style blogs
The Evil Within preview: a survival horror fan’s best worst nightmare
Porn film production likely to stop in Los Angeles after actor tests positive for HIV
The 3D-printed key that can unlock anything
Anal sex study reveals climate of 'coercion'
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?
Robin Williams Emmys tribute led by Billy Crystal criticised for including 'racist' joke about Muslim woman
The Rotherham child abuse scandal is a tale of apologists, misogyny and double standards
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Scottish independence TV debate: Pumped-up Alex Salmond bounces back in bruising second round against Alistair Darling
Do you realise just how foolish the UK looks?
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
- 1 Keira Knightley topless: Usually conservative actress does own take on #Freethenipple campaign for Interview Magazine
- 2 Joan Rivers: 'Palestinians deserve to be dead'
- 3 Lady al-Qa’ida: On the trail of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the world’s most wanted prisoner
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 It's not just the savagery of Isis that is shocking – its weaponry is too
- < Previous
- Next >
£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...
Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...
£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...
£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...