by Barney Norris
A Salisbury Playhouse World Premiere
Directed by Alice Hamilton
Designed by Tom Rogers
Lighting by Howard Hudson
Thursday 13th April 2017, 14.15
Arnold – David Beames
John – Tom Byrne
Jack Howard – Oliver Hembrough
Anna – Kattie Moore
Margaret – Sadie Shimmin
Jasper – Robin Soans
The opening folk song: Anna, John, Jasper, Margaret, Arnold
Salisbury Playhouse ticks so many boxes. It is a regional producing theatre of the highest quality, and at least once a year commissions a production with local interest. Here, a play set on Salisbury Plain by Barney Norris. Our tickets were £15. We pay four or five times as much to see no better productions in London.
L to R: Jasper, Jack. Margaret, Arnold, Anna, John
It’s set on Salisbury Plain in 1915, a year into World War One. It opens on a bucolic idyll, with five of the characters singing a folk song, verse by verse in turn. It’s Midsummer’s Eve … the Shakespearean reference is clear. That was the night when magic happened, and indeed the night when sexual relations were traditionally allowed between the unmarried. John and Anna have grown up together, they’re now entering adulthood … their parents (more later) see them as a couple. But as we learn, Anna is not willing to do what John expects … in common with the entire play, references and innuendoes are too veiled.
John (Tom Byrne) has his foot tended to by Anna (Katie Moore) – with genuine 1915 farm gear
So John enlists, possibly due to patriotic impulses, more probably due to unrequited love … the army camps can be seen growing on Salisbury Plain below the hill on which the action takes place. They’re still there, 102 years later, incidentally. As he’s about to go, a wily ANZAC New Zealander, Jack, turns up. He had been wounded at Gallipolli and is trading camp supplies for cash with Arnold. Off John goes to war. Anna is strangely attracted to this exotic, far more mature and worldly-wise (but wounded) Kiwi.
Anna (Katie Moore) as John (Tom Byrne) leaves for the war.
On which, this is why we went to see it. My companion, Karen, is from Wiltshire stock, and her great grandmother ran off with a Canadian in 1912. We had read enough to see all sorts of parallels. Karen’s Wiltshire heritage is Cricklade, so well north of Salisbury Plain. My ancestry is Cranborne Chase in Dorset, which is far closer.
Arnold (David Beames) confronts ANZAC Jack (Oliver Hembrough). Jasper (Robin Soans looks on)
The story is predictable … Anna gets pregnant. The Kiwi is recalled to the front. Her dad has a heart attack (we assume) when he realizes. John returns from the front badly wounded to find Anna is pregnant. The New Zealander is never heard from again. It’s poignant. Many lines are beautifully written and resonate. There is only one thing I hadn’t predicted after five minutes. It has, as reviews say, a Chekovian pace and feel (out there in the country too). I had decided we would hear that Ibsen / Chekov loud gunshot off stage in the last five minutes as John killed himself. Absolutely wrong. It didn’t happen.
The greatest positives were the set, beautifully detailed and realistic, and the lighting plot which threw characters into black silhouette for connecting pieces between scenes. These silhouettes had narrative importance too. Note the changing sky projection at the rear. Costume was meticulously realistic for the era too. The characters going off with scythes in silhouette were a “ploughs into swords” moment. Another was that John and Anna were playing around with what looked like early 20th century chemical crop spray apparatus, prefacing the gas attacks of World War One. Authentic farm equipment was a major plus.
There were four of us and we listed negatives, many of which are correctable if it goes on to further runs, as it deserves to. First was the relationships. We see the middle aged pair, Arnold and Margaret, and the kids, John and Anna. I had assumed all the way through the first half that Arnold and Margaret were a couple, and were John’s parents. Thus it came as a shock when Arnold tells Kiwi Jack to keep away from “my daughter” in Act Two. Two of our group had had the same comprehension problem. Two had worked it out. I should have recalled that the flier says it’s a tale of two families, but I didn’t. A touch of rewriting early on is needed to clarify this for all, then. Arnold is Anna’s dad. Margaret is John’s mum. We must assume both are widowed, though we learn they also had (like Anna and John) an unrequited relationship in their youth.
Another was simple stage grammar. In Act Two, Arnold is taken ill and leaves stage right to his house. In the next scene his house is stage left. You can do that on a bare stage, but you really can’t do it on a realistic stage set and we all noticed that exits to Arnold’s house and Margaret’s house were inconsistent throughout. Surely that’s basic direction.
We’re all from the area. Let’s not delve into the accents, and Generic Mummerset v Genuine Wiltshire, but let’s point out that Norfolk intonation (Jasper) is at least 150 miles out, and “it’s all rural” doesn’t count.
The relationships are all stolid and stereotypical. Through two generations, none of this lot have ever said what they really feel. We agreed that was genuinely rural Wiltshire all right, but less sure that it makes good drama.
Train spotter stuff: At the end, the heavily pregnant Anna is off to Cranborne (where my granddad was born). She says it’s 30 miles away. Earlier, Jasper has said he poached the Earl of Pembroke’s deer, which takes us to Wilton House, much closer to Cranborne. Fifteen miles? But who knows how extensive the Pembroke estates are? It might be right. The rural characters have suffered from flooding causing footrot in their sheep, but apparently they are sheep and arable farmers on a hill top. You don’t get a lot of flooding on hilltops. I thought the whole business of rolling a dead sheep into an onstage pond looked terrific, but was hardly worth the massive effort to create it. Margaret tells us her grandfather fought at Waterloo, exactly 100 years earlier. Possible … my grandad was in the army in World War One, but I’m at least twenty years older than Margaret. We know that John and Anna are “just about” man and woman rather than boy and girl. I’d put him in the storyline at 18. Is Margaret going to be much older than fifty? They refer to Jasper, who is 71, as “very old.” These are the sort of questions a script editor should be asking.
A lot was unsaid. The loaded word was “an understanding”. Anna had hoped she could come to an “understanding” with the wounded and disfigured John, but it’s not to be. John is mysteriously more wounded than his arm, leg and eye and facial burning. I’d predicted that we would learn his testicles or penis or both had been blown away (hence his reluctance), but maybe that was just me. It was never explicit. But so little was.
The set with pond: outstanding detail
It was touching and moving, but none of it was unexpected. Dialogue was very good. Well-acted. Set design, lighting and costume lift my rating to three.
(Karen is **)
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID:
Michael Billington, The Guardian ****
… a work that will, I suspect, lodge in the memory when flashier plays have faded into oblivion.
Matt Trueman, What’s On Stage ****
David Jobson, The Reviews Hub ***
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