“London and that were just a phase”
Two former junkies break into an abandoned East Northamptonshire farmhouse – such is the opening premise of Chris Dunkley’s new play Smallholding, a co-production between Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre and the HighTide festival. But it soon becomes apparent that this 75 minute two-hander is no stereotypically sunken-cheeked tale of crackheads and crime but rather a brutally frank and insightful exploration of the cruel dynamics of addiction and co-dependency on a young couple trying to make a future for themselves.
Signs look promising at first. Matti Houghton’s well-put-together Jen has a breezy determination to make good on the opportunities offered by her well-intentioned family and fresh out of rehab, Chris New’s edgily wiry Andy is full of positive thinking and enthusiasm for the bio-dynamic farming that is their chosen way forward. The thrill of setting up home together and making a new life soon wears thin though against the privations of rural life and the shadow of temptation that lingers unshakably over their relationship.
As with his previous play The Soft of her Palm, Dunkley enjoys subverting expectations around his subject matter and so never allows his audience to settle into complacency. It’s a smart decision to make this pair functional drug addicts as it brings an added pathos to hear about their life before, their time at university, everything they share…and the playwright slowly reveals these pieces with an exceptional surehandedness which agonisingly tightens the downwards spiral of their tragedy. The writing remains well-balanced though, for all the pained detail like the black market for clean urine, there’s a cautious optimism in the recognition that some things are worth fighting for, some lines cannot be crossed.
Director Patrick Sandford also whole-heartedly embraces the ambiguity of this world, as evidenced by the surreal touches he introduces, reminding us that our two protagonists may not necessarily be the most reliable of narrators, their account of events perhaps a little skewed, whether by the intoxication of substances or the intensity of the emotion that binds them together. And Houghton and New play into this with two outstanding performances, their palpable chemistry full of fizzing energy and unspoken connections that is simply irresistible.
Smallholding will surely become one of the hot tickets at HighTide – performances run from 7th-11th May, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this play gain well-deserved further life. Dunkley is proving to be a most skillful writer, probing mercilessly away at conventional iterations of society’s ills and revealing just how close to home so many of them are. And this production, masterfully steered by Sandford in Fabrice Serafino’s open design, matches the writing to deliver a hard-hitting yet ultimately uplifting piece of theatre.