“That’s a turnip for the books”
I’ve enjoyed previous plays by Chris Dunkley so when the invitation to see Smallholding, a co-production between HighTide and the Nuffield, came my way, I took the chance to make my first ever visit to Southampton (via a matinée in Salisbury of course) where I had a great time, ranking the play 22nd out of the 300 odd I saw last year. Spurred on by its success, the production has now resurfaced in the sweltering heat of the Soho Upstairs, where the bruising intimacy of this two-hander has only gained power.
After a rocky time of it, Andy and Jen have moved back to the East Northamptonshire village of their youth and taken on a small farm, a smallholding where they intend to make a new life, rearing pigs and growing parsnips and garlic. It’s difficult to outrun demons though and the rural isolation presents its own set of challenges – Smallholding is a story about how we sometimes grip so tightly onto the things we deem most precious to us, we don’t notice them shattering in our hands.
The writing of the central relationship is beautifully done – full of naturalistic low-key humour and the tender moments that characterise the thrill of moving to a new home. Matti Houghton turns in an exceptional performance as Jen, whose patient tolerance and hopeful pragmatism is a delight to behold whereas Chris New’s Andy is the one initially struggling more, unable to really focus and direct his energies now that sobriety is his friend. They’re great together, so the way the vicious spiral drags down their dreams really is quite devastating to watch.
I loved being able to see the show again – there’s so many tiny details woven into the play that make the imagery quite dense even though the play itself is quite sparse and there were as many things I’d forgotten as moments of recognition. Chat about inspirational sportsmen and the folkloric properties of the horn of a bull keep a surreal sense of humour to proceedings but the desperation that seeps into their lives sees them crumble like pieces of broken pavlova. Brutal but brilliant stuff.