Barney Norris, Nightfall (Director: Laurie Sansom, Br/dge Theatre)
So the incredible success of the in-the-round production of Julius Caesar was evidentially not enough to tempt people into trying a new play in a thrust layout; I was upgraded from Gallery 3 to Gallery 2. Barney Norris is a name I know but I’ve not read his two novels nor seen his earlier plays, which are clearly carving out chamber dramas in the Hampshire/Wiltshire region. There is a rural beauty, if you try hard enough to see it, but aspiration points to Southampton or the Basingstoke of Despond. (The bright lights of London, the Carole King musical and the last train home are also in reach, but you suspect that’s a rip off.)
So we have a family — Jenny (Claire Skinner) and her children Ryan (Sion Daniel Young) and Lou (Ophelia Lovibond), trying to keep the family farm going after the death of the husband — and family friend, Pete (Ukweli Roach). At some point, an oil pipe has been built across the land, dominating the stage, and Ryan and Pete have decided to surreptitiously tap the line to gain illicit oil to sell. Pete had been Lou’s boyfriend, but he had been sent to prison for assault.
In second half, preparing to move out, Lou talks about taking some stuff, storing some in the attic and throwing the rest away. She observes that people should be judged by what they own, and this should be on display. Secrets should not be kept. It comes as no surprise that the characters have secrets, and perhaps it does not matter that these are guessable. Jenny is unhappy, hating the farm and yet demanding her family stay, Ryan has been bullied, Lou has been traumatised and Pete is a victim of his own generosity. There are even hints that Ryan and Pete are emotionally closer than they themselves realise — singleton Ryan is distraught at the thought of Pete moving away to Dubai.
There is something Chekhovian about the play — perhaps The Cherry Orchard is the incipit. But Chekhov demands the gun over the fireplace in Act One is fired in Act Three. But whilst Ryan shoots crows in Act One, further bullets fail to land. Violence would be an escape and these characters are trapped, even if some are driven away.
The younger members of the cast have a realist awkwardness to them, unable to say what they really want (because they don’t know) and no better when they can speak. As a character realises they have inadvertently quoted lyrics, they wonder if they are just parroting other people’s words anyway. The large stage isolates them from each other for much of the time.
Skinner, on the other hand, brings with her the baggage of Outnumbered, and I get the same sense of a woman who can’t quite understand the children she has brought into the world and hasn’t come to terms that this is her life but not her own. There is something vindictive about her, driving a knife in before trying to reconcile, hurting others because she hurts herself. As in the sitcom, there is a husband to blame, but also to romanticise as he is no longer around to contradict the vision.
And always there are the stars, Orion, for a start, although Pete does not know that it is out of sight in the summer, and the Pole Star, always pointing north. Winter is coming.