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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

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.”