Kevin Mandry's play was recognised as an exceptional piece of writing when it was read at Player-Playwrights in 2013, winning the Best Play award. Now it has a full three-week production at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, which our group is supporting.
I don't think that disqualifies me from writing about the production, which is directed with great sensitivity by David Cottis. It's intense, sad and funny, and its final moments have a moving pathos that is truly Chekhovian. The story is set in 1916, against the distant background of World War One. Archie Gilligan (Josh Taylor), a British army captain on leave, walks into a farmyard in the shadow of the Sussex Downs pulling a cart with a new-fangled wax cylinder recording device. He's on the hunt for rural folk songs, part of a quest for an English authenticity which may be a myth. Unwittingly, he has stumbled into a rural drama in a minor key. The farm is being sold by the widowed Mary Keeble (Hilary Burns) to her neighbour George Bainton (Ian Mairs), who is due to marry 19-year-old illiterate Sarah the following day. Sarah, it emerges, has no family name and no family; she was brought up by Mary and her late husband but has no knowledge of who she really is. All she knows is that she is supposed to marry her neighbour but she doesn't want to.
Sarah's fate is decided in a few crucial hours. Gilligan's 'Eagle' wax cylinder recorder (an authentic century-old device is used on stage) becomes a kind of catalyst for her and for the other characters on stage, who peer into it as if looking for their own reflection. The hunt for authentic music becomes a metaphor for a more profound experience of life and its choices. Only the pious elderly farm labourer Joshua Merrick (Mac Elsey), who can sing only hymns, has no more choices to make.
The production has an exceptional cast. Taylor's portrayal of Gilligan gradually reveals a man whose military experience in Ireland and in France has scarred him deeply; his quest for lost folk songs covers up an inner turmoil, just as his preference for long-winded erudite language covers up an inability to form relationships. His behaviour towards Sarah, who trusts him, turns into betrayal. Mairs makes the unsympathetic Bainton (a man determined to cut down trees, rather like Lopakhin in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard) into an awkward but very human figure, who cannot understand why Sarah is revolted by him. And Isabella Marshall (whom I saw on stage in Keswick's Theatre by the Lake last summer playing the lead in An Inspector Calls) delivers an unforgettable and very moving performance as the orphaned Sarah.
When a dramatist succeeds in bringing characters to life, the audience leaves the theatre wondering what happens to them next. What happens to Vanya and Sonya when the curtain falls on Uncle Vanya? In the same way, one is left wondering what happens to Sarah. Will she find a meaning to her life, or will a a scratchy wax cyclinder recording of her voice be all that remains?
I hope this production earns a transfer to a larger and more prominent theatre; it's far too good to be stuck in a small pub theatre in Kennington.