Theatre review – Harvest

Harvest – review for Essential Surrey website

3 STARS, October 10-14. “If you want to understand how much rural England has changed in the last century, go and see Harvest,” says Andrew Morris

YAT MAIN STAGE Harvest.jpg

If you want to understand how much rural England has changed in the last century, go and see Harvest, by acclaimed writer Richard Bean. First staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 2005, this sprawling, ambitious play is currently being performed at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford, in a production by New Perspectives.

In seven separate scenes the parable spans several generations and 90 years of the Harrison family on their small Yorkshire farm, telling the story of their land in parallel with wider issues and events.

Opening in 1914, this early pronouncement hints at some of the challenges ahead, and at an underlying feud with a neighbouring landowner: “Sometimes I wish Grandad Harrison hadn’t med that wager with the Squire. He’s med a rod for the back of every Harrison following him.

The ever-present William is the glue that binds the farm and the play together. We first see him as a young man, arguing with younger brother Albert about which of them should go to war, and which should stay on the farm with Mam. William has just started courting local lass Maudie and, as their horses are requisitioned for the war effort, hints at his Secret Project idea for the farm.

1934. Albert and Maudie are married, but childless. William is an amputee, sharing his bed with Maudie, and driven by the idea of converting their land into a pig factory. By the 1950s, niece Laura and husband Stefan – a German POW – are managing the successful pig farm, thanks to William’s vision and disciplined system. This is as good as it gets.

Over the next 50 years, the family struggle against an onslaught of challenges: increasingly onerous legislation, from the UK government and then from Europe; Stefan dies from asbestosis, as a result of the pig sheds he erected; rising feed prices from the company bought by the Squire; the lack of youthful labour in the family.

By the time William celebrates his 100th birthday, the Harrison farming heritage is under threat but his stubborn stoicism and wicked humour remain. It is really in the final scene – set in 2005 – where I thought the writer stretched the parable too far, and failed to bring home the bacon.

Whilst undoubtedly a huge theatrical achievement to educate the audience on English rural history at the same time as entertaining us with richly drawn characters and dark humour, it is a fine line to avoid the sense of delivering a social history lecture.

In this ambitious production, 6 actors play 15 characters across the generations. The stand-out performances are from Tom Edward-Kane as William, convincing as both a stout 19 year-old lad and a dribbling, wheelchair-ridden shotgun-wielding centenarian. And from John Askew as plain-talking, pig-fancying labourer Titch, who arrives in the Punk era and threatens to steal the show: “I love pigs. They’re intelligent, but not too clever. Just enough to mek it interesting but not enough to get yer worried.”

A Kurdish haircut and education

I had a haircut yesterday. And I also had a humbling insight into today’s complex world of migration, refugees and multiculturalism.

Godalming is a sleepy, affluent Surrey market town, historically populated largely by white, middle-class commuters. But in recent years, we’ve got used to seeing throngs of Eastern European fruit-pickers wandering past our window to the local soft fruit farm, and several heavy-smoking Turkish barbers undercutting the long-established local scissor-wielders in the ancient High Street.

The latest additions, though, are Kurds and I was captivated by the story of my barber’s life, family, country and future.

He has lived in England for 10 years. His mother still lives in Kurdistan, and is sick. The last time he went home was to help his father, who needed surgery on his legs. The barber sold his car and borrowed money from friends to get back to Kurdistan and help his father, but he was stopped at the Iraqi border and imprisoned for 2 days.  The authorities demanded a bribe of $10,000. He refused, but eventually agreed to pay $1,000.  He saved his father, was held trying to return to England and is unable to go and back and see his family in Kurdistan again.

He asked if I knew about the recent referendum in Kurdistan. A huge majority of Iraqi Kurdistanis voted for independence, but it seems this has put them at an increased risk of attack from neighbouring Turkey and Iran, as well as from Iraq. He believes a war is inevitable.

The barber shrugs his shoulders. Conflict and death are nothing new for Kurds. He says Saddam Hussein murdered hundreds of thousands of his countrymen in the 1980s. Mass graves are still being uncovered today.

I ask if he is a Muslim.  Yes, I am a Sunni Muslim. We have Shia Muslims in Kurdistan too. And Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrans and some Jews, all living peacefully together. Unlike our neighbours.

I say I would be interested in visiting his country, and ask if it is safe. Normally, yes…but at the moment, after the referendum, possibly not. And do not travel direct from England. Go via Istria. Or Germany. If you go, tell me. You can meet my family.

£10 for a haircut and a humbling insight into another world, as far removed from sleepy Godalming as Kurdistan is from peaceful independence.

Theatre review – Rotten Perfect

Rotten Perfect – review for Essential Surrey website.

4 STARS. Lynchpin Productions present Rotten Perfect, a witty snapshot of the impassioned backstage lives of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. Andrew Morris reviews…

Henry Irving & Ellen Terry image from Lynchpin Productions’ website

Actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry are as inextricably linked as Hepburn and Tracy, Fred and Ginger, wattle and daub. Together, led by Irving as Actor-Manager and with Terry as Leading Lady, they made London’s Lyceum the foremost classical theatre of the Victorian era. They were married… though not to each other.

But whilst – over 20 years from 1878 – they were performing widely acclaimed versions of Shakespearean classics on stage together, their personal relationship was ambiguous. In Artifice’s Rotten Perfect, this innovative production immerses the audience in the white heat of that relationship and invites you to draw your own conclusions.

Henry is under financial and artistic pressure. He wants the Lyceum to continue performing what he knows is popular with its audience, but Ellen is becoming frustrated by the roles on offer and is keen to embrace exciting new writers like Ibsen and Shaw. Will she stay loyal to Irving, or will she succumb to the siren call of brash newcomer George Bernard Shaw, who is writing a play centred around her?

Claire Parker plays Ellen and has also written this fictionalised story for Lynchpin Productions and Artifice. When Ellen was just 16 she married George Frederic Watts, the eminent artist, who was 46 at the time. So performing Rotten Perfect in Surrey’s very own Watts Gallery adds another layer of authenticity to this engaging production. Artifice’s mission is “to perform classical plays in beautiful places, bringing together period text and period locations.” The gallery’s artwork, sculptures, high ceilings and cavernous spaces are all incorporated effortlessly into the performance, and the knowledge that a famous portrait of the artist’s young wife is hanging nearby makes this a very special theatrical experience indeed.

James Sygrove plays Sedgwick, introducing a deft comic touch to proceedings. A young actor at the Lyceum, initially a nervous understudy to the dominating Irving, he blooms when offered more responsibility, both on and offstage, and especially when stepping into the breach to play Henry V. This new-found confidence also empowers him to make advances to Alice Comyns Carr. Played by Lynchpin co-founder Edie Campbell, Alice is the Lyceum’s costume designer – brilliantly creative, astute, and married… but also inquisitive.

And all the while, George Bernard Shaw sits patiently – amongst the audience – biding his time. Played by Ray Murphy, he sporadically jumps into life and reads – with a gentle Irish lilt – his letters to Ellen, his acerbic wit increasingly aimed against the intransigent Irving.

But it is Will Harrison-Wallace as Henry and Claire Parker as Ellen who dominate the story and the stage. Henry’s vanity and purse take a battering when both a promised knighthood and funding for the Lyceum are in jeopardy, because of his relationship with Ellen. But is he too proud to implore her to stay and help save the theatre?

All the company embrace their unique surroundings perfectly to bring this story to rich, artistic life. Rotten Perfect has also been performed at the Barn Theatre, Smallhythe Place, where Ellen lived, and I would urge you to try and see this wonderful production wherever it might be performed next.