Fen - Review

Some plays haunt you into reviving them. Ian Amos attended the second night of Caryl Churchill’s Fen in February 1983 whilst a student: the set as the dramatist remembers a striking single field. Struck by it and by the way other productions got literally bogged down in mud (one he was writing music for in 1993), Amos directed Fen for Questers in 2003 and now brings it to NVT. There’s ghosts in this play and they won’t let Amos go. They shouldn’t let you go either.

Churchill worked with Joint Stock actors who gleaned stories quotes and memories from people native to the fenland. They presented their findings and Churchill wrote one of the great pioneering plays using verbatim. Not wholly verbatim, which gives Fen its reach and power.

20-odd characters scramble over they land they work and dream upon. Language too gets scumbled over like half-dry paint. Words and storytelling’s fragmentary, isolated or keeps re-emerging, crumbling through your fingers.

Eight actors six women two men mainly multi-role scenes both stand-alone and recurring. The core concerns a group of women planting and reaping in a way their forebears did. Helen Betty Ann’s Boy looks out from somewhere in the 19th and 20th centuries. He’s timeless. But the land shifts under his feet.

It’s not even owned by Apollo Videaux’ Mr Tewson any more, the farmer who cajoles the luckless Frank (James Stallwood) into staying because his father looked after Frank’s afflicted brother. Coming straight after the Boy, Vidaux tops the play with Japanese Mr Takai gloating over the land he’s bought for his company.

Fen’s also sound-designed by Ian Amos, the sparse field set – and costumes – designed, painted and dressed by Delphine du Barry – built by Simon Glazier and George Walter. Sedge thickets punctuating the edges are vividly realized, as is the occasional application of dry ice for mist effects. The rear door owns a function and a ghosting of its own. Potatoes and other vegetables scatter on the paint-scumbled floor evoking earth, and there is a token pile of it hoed by one character. It’s lit with refractive density by Keith Dawson (the operator’s Esmé Bird). The sound design’s operated by Richard Michalec lapping the sounds of the fens. And the occasional period pop song.

It’s the women whose stories impact. The group’s differentiated with Milly Jackson’s taskmistress Mrs Hassett cracking the whip, and Kerri Hedley-Cheney making the first of her memorable contributions as the radically-minded Nell, who fights off comments from Hassett and witch-calling children alike. Later she’s smooth-suited Miss Cade, persuading Tewson to sell to Takai (whom we’ve already seen exulting). Hedley-Cheney’s blistering Nell, suave Cade and 90-year-old Ivy in circular recall make an impressive trio.

Hedley-Cheney’s Ivy gives first-hand accounts of what is was like to pick beet, indeed survive at the turn of the century. It’s mesmerising. Even more so is Nell’s account of her grandfather as a boy running away and being party to a man taking vengeance on his faithless wife and her lover who think they’ve poisoned him and is let out of his coffin to pinion them with a pitchfork. Then as already ‘dead’ put the man in the coffin and make it look as if the man did a bunk. And Nell’s grandfather sworn to terrible secrecy.

There’s a cruelly sharp sequence between Fi Urquhart’s cruel Angela and stepdaughter: Angela tells her charge Becky (Jackson) she doesn’t want Becky to like her. This recalls Top Girls the preceding play, but in a far more twisted manner as Angela exacts sadistic punishments and taunts. It’s such scenes that broaden Churchill to savage epic.

There’s above all Sophie Matthews’ Val who’s leaving her husband and painfully her children (Angela Gorman’s Deb, Helen Betty Ann’s Shona) for Frank, who’s left his wife long ago. Val’s acute dilemma howls across this drama in some of the most memorable scenes – and characters – Churchill has created. From the pulsing disco lights of the Eurythmics ‘Love is a Stranger’ when the lovers entwine, to Val’s final devastating plea to Frank – to be released from more than Frank – Churchill takes a news cutting and makes it unbearably moving. Also recalling Top Girls with its portrayal of children at play, Gorman and Betty Anna twist away from Val; Urquhart’s May dispenses wisdom to her runaway daughter, and Vidaux’ Geoffrey and Gorman’s Shirley lend a nuanced damnation.

Geoffrey summarises the insular response to Val: ’I don’t hold you personally responsible, Val. You’re a symptom of the times. Everything’s changing. Everything’s going down. Strikes, militants, I see the Russians behind it.’ Churchill’s way of evoking vast scope by invoking narrow prejudice is breathtaking – and breathlessly funny. If it wasn’t so alienating for Val.

Val turns to Jackson’s Alice in a religious revival (Urquhart’s alcoholic Margaret giving witness, Gorman’s Mrs Finch presiding, Betty Ann’s innocent Mavis) in a delicious array of churchy clothing. ‘I’d rather take valium’ Val tells Alice. Churchill’s way with vignettes such as these crafts the kind of patchwork such religious women might recognize as metaphor but not effect: the red thread of Val’s passion burns through the play to the last haunting pleas to Frank. ‘What are you frightened of?’ Val asks Frank. ‘Going mad. Heights. Beauty.’ ‘Lucky we live in a flat country’ she ripostes but they both know the other two things are live.

Elsewhere there’s a visionary monologue for Val in very different circumstances, after her own remarkable transformation in the great last set-scene of the play. She’s simply interrupted by Frank’s questions and Betty Ann’s Boy with ‘Jarvis Jarvis come and make my coffin’ a real quote from a man of 102.

Amos directs some outstanding performances. Matthews’ Val and Hedley-Cheney’s Nell centre this production, the heart and wry commentator of the play. Betty Ann and Gorman impress as Shona and Deb, and Jackson’s Becky and Urquhart’s Angela (who also makes a pass at Frank in a pub with darts board) add another dimension to close-set lives inbreeding cruelty. Exploit, alienate from themselves, dominate. Churchill’s critique of government refracts with vivid marsh-lights.

Churchill’s comments via Hedley-Cheney’s Cade persuading Vidaux’ Tewson out of his farm emphasize that political dimension: how new Tories harm those who naturally support them – bar the switched-on Nell and few others.

A stunning play beautifully revived by one who knows it intimately.

Simon Jenner
Published - Fringe Review 4November 2019