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
Co-creator Mark Gatiss dropped some very intriguing hints ahead of the BBC drama's return next year
Life & Style blogs
World’s largest chocolate manufacturer adds voice to warnings of 'potential cocoa shortage by 2020'
We can't easily shut down Russian webcam hackers, admits Information Commissioner
GTA 5, Xbox One review: Next gen Los Santos is beautiful chaos
Unpaid make-up artists reveal the ugly side of Miss World
Google launches subscription service for the internet to replace ad revenue online
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Muslims pre-date Columbus in discovering America,' says Turkish president Erdogan
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
Former Tory PM Sir John Major says 'we would not have an NHS without migrants'
G20 summit: David Cameron warns Vladimir Putin that Russia's relationship with the West is at a 'fork in the road' over Ukraine
- 1 'Not suppost to cry': 9-year-old lists the worst things about being a boy
- 2 Lee Evans announces his retirement from comedy on The Jonathan Ross Show
- 3 Iggy Azalea responds to Eminem rape lyrics: 'I'm bored of old men threatening young women'
- 4 These grandmas smoking weed for the first time are wonderful
- 5 Pastafarian former porn star Asia Lemmon allowed to wear colander in driving licence photo
£8 - £12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To assist a young family with the care ...
£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...
£55000 - £70000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world lead...
Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world leading services pr...