“Give me back my hoe and get out of here”
The Finborough Theatre’s new season is entitled In Their Place, focusing the next three months on women playwrights and featuring as its opening production, the first London revival of Caryl Churchill’s 1983 play Fen. Set in a poor East Anglian farming community, the play looks at what people, women in particular, expect from life and the realities of what that life actually offers them. By looking at different generations of women, the possibilities of change are revealed but their unlikeliness never hidden as we see that it is external factors beyond their control that affect them the most, whether it is foreign corporations buying up the land or Margaret Thatcher’s draconian policies.
The cast of six cover over 20 roles as the drudgery of a menial life in an impoverished rural setting is portrayed through a set of short scenes with various stories and characters fading in and out of focus with most attention being paid to the character of Val, a woman torn between her love for a man and her two children and ostracised as she chooses the former over the latter. Katharine Burford’s performance was powerful but the tendency to the non-naturalistic meant that I wasn’t quite convinced of the depth of passion with Alex Beckett’s Frank. Elsewhere there was great work throughout the ensemble who were all given opportunities to stretch their range whilst bringing so many different aspects of this community to life, Nicola Harrison in particular shone as a vindictive stepmother and the sweetly innocent young Deb and Rosie Thomson was also excellent, delineating all of her roles clearly yet moving in all of them.
I have to say though it wasn’t always clear to me who everyone was at any given point, or more accurately how they related to the characters who had come before or after, the fragmented narrative meant that the play never really settled easily with me. My experience of Churchill’s plays is still relatively limited and so I suppose I am still becoming accustomed to her voice and her style, but this didn’t strike me as one of my favourites so far. Without the playfulness that meant I enjoyed Cloud Nine, the straightforwardness of Three More Sleepless Nights, the acting tour-de-force of A Number or the historical interest that came out of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Fen suffered by comparison.
James Button’s design places the action in an earth-filled pit (something that the Arcola’s Light Shining on Buckinghamshire also did) down the middle of the Finborough, splitting the audience in two and creating quite a constrained space for the actors to work in. This wasn’t too much of an issue aside from not being able to really convince at evoking the sense of location of the endless flatness of the fens: conversely it was perfect for conveying the claustrophobia of life there. I had more issues with the occasional choice in Ria Parry’s direction to overload the playing space: as amazing as it was to watch a live game of darts right in front of me (God knows how they got that past Health & Safety!), I was completely transfixed by it, and the efforts to find the one dart that didn’t hit the board…, rather than the actual scene that was taking place. Likewise with the dinner scene (where real soup from a thermos and bread & butter were eaten), the heavy attention to detail distracted in the intimate space, rather than adding to the storytelling. But I probably noticed these things a lot more because I hadn’t really become engaged with the play.
Fen is an interesting revival and the production here is one which fits in neatly with the incredibly high standard that the Finborough has been maintaining. Bringing attention to a little-performed work by one of our most challenging playwrights is laudable but for me, I have to say some familiarity with the text would have made for a more rewarding experience as on first look, it left me a bit too bewildered. I never really got a handle on exactly when everything was happening and the connections between the vast array of characters. The grimness of rural life as portrayed here is close to overwhelming, even the little comic ditty that the young girls sing about the jobs they want to do when they grow up has a repeated refrain of we will never leave the village and there’s a haunting recognition that parts of our society are not too far away from this situation now. All told, there is much here to enjoy and if recent experience is anything to go by, then you will book your tickets sooner rather than later.