“It is not just your life – you are part of a family”
Rory Kinnear’s credits as an actor are unquestionable, having tackled some of the major roles in the Shakespearean canon but though previously untested as a playwright, his debut play comes to us in a lavish production at the Bush Theatre featuring a top-notch cast and the directorial flair of Howard Davies. This certainly casts an immediate sheen of quality over The Herd but one which is perhaps a little generous as it papers over the cracks of what is an uneven piece of writing albeit an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.
This particular herd – the Griffiths – are gathering to celebrate the 21st birthday of Andy, a severely disabled man with the mental age of nine months. He is being brought back from his care home for a family party but the atmosphere is already tense before anyone has arrived. His mum Carol exists permanently on the edge of her tether, his older sister Claire is bringing her boyfriend round for the first time even though they’ve been going out for a year, his grandparents are troublemaking laws unto their own and his dad, well his dad hasn’t been on the scene for five years.
Playing out over real time, Kinnear picks apart the dynamics of this dysfunctional brood, examining the impact of Andy’s condition on the different generations of the family and how it has shaped their entire emotional landscape. Amanda Root’s ferocious maternal instinct as Carol burns so hard that it scorches those around her, Louise Brealey’s Claire bubbles with long-held resentments, and Anna Calder-Marshall’s superb Patricia brandishes an acid tongue to fear, though retains a fierce sense of loyalty that is beautifully elucidated.
But for all this sharp sense of emotion, the characters are rarely allowed to expand beyond their allocated note and so there are sections where the play does feel relentless (the errant husband being called Ian meant that I left the theatre feeling extremely guilty as his name is repeatedly spat in venom). And for all the richness of the performances, the lack of complexity in the writing leaves it feeling a little too familiar, a little too neat in the way events unfold – the speed with which earth-shattering argument turns into game-playing bonhomie particularly sticks out.
Much of Kinnear’s writing here comes from a personal place – write about what you know, they say – and so it will be interesting to see if another play spills forth from his pen that ventures into more exploratory territory. It will be one to look out for if it does for he clearly possesses a gift for satisfying humour and dialogue and The Herd demonstrates both with aplomb. Well worth the trip to the Bush, not least to see Calder-Marshall capping off a remarkably prolific year.