“Maybe I’m meant t’stay ‘ere. Maybe…”
Barrow Hill is Jane Wainwright’s debut play, set in her native Derbyshire. 86 year old Kath Bilby is determined to save her local Methodist Chapel from being converted into flats as her family ties to the place are numerous and considerable. But when she finds it is her own son Graham, seeing an opportunity to address financial difficulties, who has won the building contract, both mother and son are forced to deal with their divided allegiances in this delicately moving tale at the Finborough.
Wainwright presents the idea of family loyalty and community as a double-edged sword. The succour that Kath finds from the wealth of family history and intimate familiarity around her is contrasted with the stifled ambition of grand-daughter Alison, itching to explore life beyond Derbyshire though keenly aware of how tightly the family bonds are felt. There’s a subtle grace to much of the writing here, Janet Henfrey’s determined feistiness convinced of her path of action and filling the void in a life where so many of her friends have died, and Cath Whitefield’s brusque wit just about hiding the more sensitive soul longing to come out.
But the play never quite kicks out of this understated gear. Wainwright doesn’t lend the central conflict between Kath and Graham the requisite teeth to make it compelling and Abbey Wright’s direction similarly doesn’t inject sufficient energy into the scenes that need it, in order to make this a story in which all the elements are as persuasive as each other. Charlie Roe thus struggles to make Graham a truly sympathetic character and so convince us of the gravity of his dilemma, and Mark Weinman is saddled with the rather under-developed Lucasz, too peripheral a character in an already slight piece.
Whilst perhaps lacking a serious dramatic drive, Barrow Hill does still possess a considerable charm, particularly in Avye Leventis and Tom Spink’s playful young couple, remnants from Kath’s memory who are woven around the main narrative and give us some significant indicators as to why she holds this chapel dearly to her heart. Henfrey’s central performance, at once restrained and impassioned, is certainly worthy of attention, but some might ultimately find the play a little too gentle for their tastes.