Review - The Winterling by Jez Butterworth

There’s a hot wire running through Jez Butterworth’s work, ‘something to do with violence and the poor’ as Auden wrote. Add margins both geographical and societal and you can see how killing swine – he’s kept livestock since 2004 – creates that Butterworth paradigm: a sharp-dresser creased in mud.

His 1995 gangster-manqué debut Mojo (which NVT mounted over a decade back) was followed after gone-wrong screenwriting by The Night Heron in 2002, and here The Winterling from 2006, Butterworth’s explicit homage to Pinter. If his next play (Parlour Song, 2008, also NVT May 2015) and the intimate three-hander The River (2012, BLT October 2019) sidestepped from muddy braggadocio to female agency, it returned in Jerusalem (2009) and The Ferryman (2017) – the latter play containing everything of the Butterworth we have.

If his 2002 and 2006 plays received a muted response, critic Michael Billington struggling with Butterworth’s creative identity, it’s clear that to many these plays seemed pigshit to make those roses shine. NVT’s triumphant production under Steven O’Shea proves how wrong this judgement is. For all its explicit homage and wide open pauses – they do drag on a few beats too long – The Winterling is a beautifully-balanced, pristine play with redemption and restitution at its heart. It’s the prototype of Butterworth’s two later masterpieces, the point where he truly comes into his force.

The mood’s punctuated by jet-screams – turning on a significant trig-point – and great sunk silences. Look and feel seep into this production. Directed by Steven O’Shea, with set dressing led by Delphine Du Barry, the design team’s led by Simon Glazier, who create a single-set farmhouse interior with a punctured chair downstage right, and stage-right a makeshift Shabitat kitchen with 1960s mint-green dresser-drawers and hobs that need topping by a Calor-Gas one. Walls are beautifully damp-distressed; a dead-centre stove boasting a remarkable interior blaze resides literally under an axe: a sword of Damocles; and a descending hanger for muddy trousers (is Butterworth mischievously quoting his memorable coup, Silver Johnny hanging upside down by his trouser bottoms in Act Three of Mojo?). Stage left there’s a door, upstage a winningly-observed little porchway through glass. In the Act Two of a year earlier the place briefly looks a sight worse.

That fire’s one of the things lit keenly by Strat Mastoris who also designs the posters. That sometimes splintering sound’s by Ian Black alongside a stereoscope of lamb-bleats that elicits sniggers for being so present, with special effects consultant Deej Johnson. Ian Hollands’ costume design relishes the mix of rural and city.

Jonathan Howlett’s West is interrupted. Ne’er-do-well Draycott (Mark Lester) is apparently the man who leased this fugitive Londoner this Dartmoor cottage though in fact we learn he doesn’t own it at all. He has less agency that when we next meet him a year earlier when West arrives haggard, almost speechless and very different. Howlett’s register of both states is masterly. Lester scores a tour-de-farce with one of Butterworth’s great sidelong speeches which has nothing to do but establish how Draycott can menace shopkeepers into giving him food and even money to ‘just fuck off’ as one baker does. His mode of protection is simply adding mad in a full shop. And his cooking – no butter, spit on it – to a turn, then realizing he’s burned the pig’s heart – is a culinary triumph.

West has fled for a reason that becomes clear when two men turn up, one Stuart Curlett’s Wally, from his past; another, Patsy (Thomas Hobart) the son of ‘that Rita’ whom West dimly knew. No-one just apparates from the Smoke. Wally has a proposition. That doesn’t come till much later, and it so happens he’s duplicated it. Neither, surreally, meet Draycott. They do though meet someone we first meet a year earlier (thus later!) who refuses to talk to Draycott. But at the end of Act One and the interval, it’s Patsy who asks about that girl upstairs. Who?

Curlett’s Wally is a curiously banter-born enforcer, Curlett’s lightness of tone and mode almost working against type, which works beautifully. How can this office-worker demeanour presage what it seems to? Both visitors treat West with a respect due to one who was once pre-eminent, but after five days not allowed any sleep watching from a car without relief, he fell asleep. Retribution was terrible. West has retreated.

There’s all sorts of hints as to what to do with talkative Patsy, first sent on a wild errand to the mud-sunk car to retrieve Wally’s cigs. As if he hasn’t several packets on him. Duetting between Wally and West inscribes past camaraderie; later on Wally has a private proposal.

The Q&A on the Iron Age fort visited on Patsy when he returns – did he access the talking lady? – is a Joycean comic highpoint like an initiation test, but at the same time establishes a defining alliance. Hobart plays Patsy’s slightly gormless but quick youth with a winning mix. With Hobart Patsy’s someone who grasps essentials and details though enjoys showing it a bit too much. Patsy’s talkativeness – which irritates not a few in London – masks shrewdness. Details Patsy and West throw at each other are dizzyingly farcical, but fascinating. It’s only Wally who doesn’t even see the fort. It’s as if to see it ushers you to an invisible community. All four other characters are drawn to it, one dreams of seeing another there, frozen. For there’s someone we’ve not met.

It’s this circling act of recognition Butterworth frames so exquisitely. West, Draycott and Lue assert they’ve been glimpsing each other for long before they meet. As in Act Two Charlotte Hesks’ reticent Lue appears, refusing to speak to Draycott (‘most other people have a sweet side. He hasn’t’ she asserts). And his battery of insults at her underscore this.

Lue’s assertions that she needs ‘a businessman’ to sign her passport photo – isn’t West in business? – have a point. Lue wants out of Dartmoor. Hesks brings out vulnerable sullen underpinned by an exceedingly sharp mind with naïve corners – Lue’s horizons have been crimped. Again a litany of knowledge – here, a passport form – acts like a passport, when really discussing something else.

There’s always some Pinteresque reason Lue can’t escape, not the dog she gives West for helping her a year ago. That’s the Winterling dog run off at the opening and whom West’s waiting the return of at the end. Amongst other things.

Now, back in the present with all introduced and Wally waiting outside, there’s a broken buckle on Lue’s suitcase that means she can’t leave. Patsy can repair it. And they’d spotted each other too. Partly in dream. This is where the fort itself, that trig point split by noise, becomes something other, a test of belonging.

The denouement’s deeply satisfying, raising questions and a paradigm. Butterworth’s heroes conjure final confrontations accompanied with unknowable forces: thundering ancient gods, banshees. Here there’s just something liminal, ancient, slighted but enduring. And West like his name has a home. With Howlett West’s different selves narrow superbly to one intent stare.

NVT’s production is a triumph. Nearly flawless, it must be seen by anyone interested in contemporary drama.

Simon Jenner
published in Fringe Review - 18 January 2020

Great Expectations - Review

Any audience for anything Dickens is freighted with expectation.
Since his books were written, they have attracted scores of adaptations, films and recordings from dozens of celebrated directors, actors and film stars: we have become accustomed to a starry Dickens of international fame whose original serials for Blackwood’s magazine in the 1860’s now fill box sets and pack out the cinema.

But a local theatre production of Great Expectations? With a cast of just thirteen actors and minimal sets? Well, people, go and buy tickets at once, and quickly, for this stunning version is up there with the best. Neil Bartlett’s powerful dramatization tells the story in Dickens’ own words with a fizz and a punch that leave you gasping. The New Venture Theatre players, choreographed with lightening speed and dusted with theatrical magic, take several parts at the double: Dan Dryer swaps accents and neckties between Jo and Jaggers whilst Martin Ryan shares his menace between the sergeant and Bentley Drummie. Matt Ingram’s Pip travels some twenty years between rough boy and urban gent as well as managing the narration and breathtaking gymnastics. He is brilliantly charming – why wouldn’t Justine Smith’s abandoned bride adore him? Eventually, even the icy Estella of Emma Lillie Lees melts for an adult Pip and a happy ending. Mark Green is fitting rival to Finlay Currie, David Lean’s churchyard convict in the 1946 film, and no higher praise is possible.

Diane Robinson directs with fantastic skill, assisted by a creative team whose selection of musical scores, set devices, costumes and lighting immediately evoke the atmosphere of the marsh, the ruined Satis House and the Victorian streets of London. Please don’t miss this: it is impossible to imagine a Greater Expectation.

Louise Dumas.

Gabriel Review - Oct 2019

Light plays over the darkened stage, revealing themselves as waves and throughout the whole of Britten’s ‘Dawn’ from Peter Grimes Interludes this morphs in the longest, most atmospheric introduction to a play I’ve seen anywhere.

Guernsey, 1943. A naked young man is washed up on the beach, his identity a secret, not helped by his speaking both English and German but with complete amnesia. To some in the Becquet family he’s an angel; for others devilishly hard to pin down or throw out. Moira Buffini’s 1997 play is as fresh as it was debuting in a world almost as different as the 1943 it depicts; which perhaps is nearer now.

There’s too many questions. Gabriel, the infatuated child Estelle calls him, the prayer to her squares of power we see her drawing as the play starts tenebrously. Then ‘Cockney’ daughter-in-law Lily and housekeeper Margaret Lake – who keeps them alive with black market deals – wrangle over whether it’s worth saving the man Lily finds on the beach.

Living in a hermitage, kicked out of their manor house by occupying Germans, there’s four women with now two secrets. Lyn Snowden’s aristocrat soignée widow Jeanne unthinkingly reveals the more dangerous, chattering to their new liaison officer. Dumb Major von Pfunz can only say ‘very nice’. ‘Do tell me about your wonderful name, Major,’ Snowden drawls, ‘it sounds like flatulence.’ She adds tauntingly, since he doesn’t understand a word: ‘You’re a very handsome race. Some of you anyway. And some of you look like goblins!’ She should know. She slept with his predecessor out of choice. She lets fall a devastating fact about her daughter-in-law Lily. Over-attached to her son, an RAF pilot, she confesses she dislikes his ‘Jew-wife’.

Then of course von Pfunz urbanely corrects her, later telling her Peterhouse in a Cambridge not Oxford college. This whilst shredding her Gabriel back-story. She thinks he might be an RAF pilot. Von Pfunz thinks very differently. Later still the grudging Lake has evidence – in Amanda Harman’s wonderfully curmudgeonly performance – that he’s someone else again. So she thinks.

As loyalties tauten and shift, as Estelle (in Naomi Horsfall’s keen, fresh performance) continually pushes the brinkmanship further with misplaced pluck, Jeanne has to use all her equivocal resistance, and row back from guilt too. That’s not easy. A woman who’s also boasted unwittingly that her son wasn’t her husband’s is somehow irresistible to von Pfunz. But he won’t possess her. He admires her disdain for him so much he wants love instead.

There’s a magnificent egotism too in the way Jeanne refers casual ‘three years’ to Gabriel asking about the war: she unthinkingly refers to the occupation, not the war itself, which has continued four.

There’s Jack Lynn’s fine Gabriel, a convincingly tousled performance managing to convey a genuine perplexity together with affection – he touches Lily’s wrist momentarily, and it says everything that happens. He’s particularly good at conveying Gabriel’s identity as a lit numinous thing, almost angelic, a single memory of falling a long way, but not by parachute or plane. Lynn brings the right innocence and the bewildered edge which could reveal him from the most pitch-black as well as blinding of places.

Mark Lester’s layered Nazi is a thing of repellent beauty, a compelling mix of the knowingly, intelligently brutish, just held in check, and the romantic who dreams a man who can fill a book with pose poems of horrors. A book that’s stolen and shared. But Lester’s gift for exuding the pain in the monster, the desire to be appreciated, unvarnished for who he is, a man who’s able to articulate what chaos and war release, makes him ore than a stereotype. His continual cat-and-mouse with Snowden is the core tension of the work as they paly off each other’s vulnerabilities and intimate fears. And they come to know each other intimately in a different way than you’d expect.

Chelsea Newton Mountney as Lily is another compelling performance, whether in her sullen vehemence, someone only Estelle feels close to, and then her discovery of Gabriel which shifts things for her, as well as Jeanne’s slipped words. There’s a daring and nobility in Lily that Mouney catches perfectly, though when it comes to true daring Horfalls Estelle takes the palm. Horsfall suggests a girl older than her nominal ten years, both child-like yet quickly apprehensive, alert, electric, mischievously defiant and ultimately heroic.

Directed by Gerry McCrudden, the Upstairs set (designed and built by Adam Kinciad, Simon Glazier and others) is a consummately realized farmhouse with a darker slate-coloured wall with a central door and passageway, a kitchen area stage left and stage right a red carpet and chairs. The period selection of chairs and surfaces is exemplary. Furthest stage left is a raised area where Gabriel’s bed is placed, with a door behind. Lit by Strat Mastoris – responsible for the remarkable light-show at the beginning, and various blackout effects via Max Apollo Videaux’ videography and tech, it’s operated by Alex Epps. The sound design by Alistair Lock encompasses Britten and surround storm effect, operated by Erica Fletcher. Ian Hollands and Mark Green produce authentic costumes from German uniform, to wartime handkerchief hat-fashions to cricket flannels.

This is an engrossing story, certainly, but so much more than that. It examines delusions we have of ourselves the degree to which we can lie or assume we can, and degrees of denial. The eponymous figure’s a catalyst certainly, but the impure truth – pace von Pfunz – is so much more dangerous and fascinating. Wit sovereign production values, fine pace and a flawless cast. you won’t see a better revival of this drama anywhere.

Simon Jenner
Fringe Review - 5 October 2019

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


The Herbal Bed - Review

Peter Whelan’s fascinating and multi-layered play is based on actual facts. Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna Hall, is accused of adultery with Rafe Smith, a family friend. Her husband, a respected doctor, urges her to sue for slander and restore their good names.

It is a tale of passion, loyalty and religion centring on Susanna, an intelligent and independent woman living in a loveless marriage that puts her second to her husband’s work and dedication. Love has gone sour in Rafe’s marriage. His wife’s mental state is in decline following the loss of their two children. Each senses the sadness in the other and love secretly blossoms between them. It almost becomes consummated in circumstances that lead to the accusation. What follows shows that being economical with the truth is not a modern exercise and that skin saving lying is not the prerogative of politicians only.

The writing mixed moral debate with a goodly helping of humour and offered meaty parts for the actors. All rose to the challenge with no dud performances.

As Susanna, Red Gray gave a mesmerising performance that conveyed the duality of the character - outwardly an angelic soul nurturing forbidden passion within. Her eyes and glances told a different story to
her spoken words. They oozed love for Rafe whilst her body maintained a modest demeanour. Her transformation to a creature of sexuality in the night scene was stunning as was the way she took control of the ensuing situation. She became the puppet master over her lover and husband.

Sarah Charsley’s Hester, the servant, was a delightful piece of characterisation - a simple soul full of unrequited love for Rafe, yet feisty in defending it. After aiding her mistress by lying she got to deliver the funniest line in the play.

Rafe, in Warren Saunders hands, is basically a simple and honest man with a strong sense of conscience that threatens to wreck all their lives. His torment was well conveyed as he tried to reconcile his love with the shame of betraying his friendship with Dr Hall.

Simon Messingham played John Hall, the dedicated doctor who knows and accepts his wife’s unfaithfulness as long as it is never openly acknowledged. Such acknowledgment would destroy his position and life’s work. To protect this he goes along with the cover up. Hall’s portrayal was a sympathetic one and, again, one whose facial expressions spoke volumes as it gave away the realisation and anguish of his natural honesty being corrupted.
Comedy came from Jay Chappell as Jack Lane, the swaggering womaniser who behaviour belies his position as part of the local gentry. His posturing and drunken behaviour certainly amused the audience.

Gerry McCrudden turned in a nice cameo as Bishop Parry with a perfectly judged amount of benigness - a characteristic that was totally alien to his
Vicar General, Goche. In this role Alistair Lock almost stole the show with his chilling and, at times, hilarious portrayal of the man’s overzealous piety and puritanical loathing of the gentry. This was seen at its best during the cross examination scene. His performance brought to mind the thought that he would make an excellent Inquisitor should NVT ever put on Shaw’s Saint Joan and how about Sarah Charsley in the title role. (now there’s a thought, Tamsin)

Young Constance Starns played the role of the Hall’s daughter, Elizabeth, at the performance I attended – the role was shared with Cordelia Brand. Child actors can irritate with pretentiousness but not so Miss Starns. She had a sweetness that did not cloy and gave the part a most natural feel.

Tamsin Fraser’s direction was sensitive, unobtrusive and finely balanced the comedy with the dramatic action. She was supported by a creative that enhanced the production with a most realistic set, excellent music and sound effects. The simple lighting changes that enable the scene to move to Worcester Cathedral were most effective and deserve a special mention.

Barrie Jerram

20 June 2014