Review: Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, Arcola Theatre

“Words come out of my mouth like toads”

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is one of Caryl Churchill’s earlier plays, taking up residence now in Studio 1 of Dalston’s Arcola Theatre. Set during the English Civil War, it deals with a period of time when there was huge political upheaval, the conflict between the power of the landowning class and the burgeoning ideals around individual freedom came to a head and questions around liberty and real democracy were posed by the different factions in Cromwell’s New Model Army.

The focus in each half is around a debate, in the first half it is the Putney Debates of 1647 when common soldiers argued passionately for genuine democratic reform in opposition to Oliver Cromwell’s policies of protecting the power of the landowners. In the second, it is a group of common people who have found God through or indeed despite their suffering and starvation. Around these focal points is a collage of stories of how brutal life for the population at large is, as they are constantly kept down-at-heel: the poor are whipped, children abandoned to their death, evangelists preaching of the new heaven on earth for men but not women, all rather bleak.

Structurally, the play is quite challenging, with lots of fragmented short scenes, a bewildering array of characters and to be honest, requires at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Civil War to fully appreciate what is going on. But even with that, the fundamental truths that Churchill seeks to highlight shine through regardless: the pain and agonies of the dispossessed and disenchanted, repressed by those seeking to protect their entitled positions in society. The new regime promised change but ultimately very little has changed.

The actors all do extremely well at switching between their various roles at lightning speed but maintaining an honest integrity throughout. The ensemble is impressively tight already: Michelle Terry is astounding as the General Ireton at the aforementioned Putney debate and her face-off with Helena Lymbrey’s impassioned soldier is the highlight of the show; Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (so very recently in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) scarily intense butcher, Jamie Ballard’s preaching, Christopher Harper’s praying and Philip Arditti’s schmoozing also impressed.

The set is bleakly atmospheric in Hannah Clark’s austere design, a ditch in the form of a cross has been dug down to reveal the soil beneath, emphasising the importance of the land to everyone, the occasional chanting of psalms reminding us of the religious fervour. A bare minimum of props, a soldier’s helmet here, a bottle of London Pride beer there, focus the attention well; the costumes which vary from 17th century dress to modern-day conflict-wear evoke the swirling timelessness well, without pushing the contemporary comparisons too much.

Ultimately, I found that I admired this play rather than loving it: it is such a cerebral piece that it engages the mind so fully it never quite touches the heart, but in such an atmospheric production (by Strawberry Vale) and with such a brilliant cast (seeing Michelle Terry acting so close to me was a highlight of the month), I doubt there are more revelatory nights to be found at the moment, than here at the Arcola theatre. One final thing, avoid sitting face on to the entrance into the auditorium or you will find, like I did, that there’s less light shining in Buckinghamshire then there is right into your eyes.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval) 
Programme cost: £1
Booking until 7th August

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