Review: Deluge, Hampstead Downstairs

“The world’s gone all strange”

For better or for worse, the aspect of Fiona Doyle’s new play Deluge that lingers most in the mind is Moi Tran’s design. Continuing a trend of adventurous transformations of the downstairs space at the Hampstead, she has flooded the stage calf-deep – appropriately so for a drama so preoccupied with adverse weather conditions – with platforms at either end and a table and chairs perched on a box placed in the middle of the water. A striking choice but not one without its trials as soon became clear once the audience had taken their place in the traverse seating.

For there’s a fair amount of stomping about from one end to the other, especially in the earlier stages of the play, and consequently splashing galore, given how intimate this theatre is. A little advance warning might have been appreciated – given a couple of the disgruntled faces I suspect a stern letter of complaint or two might well be on the way! – but more significant than any amount of damp patches on your handbag is how distracting the noisy reality of wading through the water proves to be throughout the play.

The non-linear structure of the play means scenes skitter about in both time and space, but it proves a little difficult for Anna Ledwich’s production to deliver short scenes effectively when the actors have to don their wellies, make their way through the pool and clamber onto boxes, just to deliver a few short lines of dialogue. It makes for an occasional clunkiness to the show that is counter-intuitive to the fluidity of Doyle’s writing, first seen in London in the award-winning Coolatully, and once again returning to a bleak portrayal of life in rural Ireland.

In Deluge, she imagines a dystopian version of the world, not too dissimilar to ours in the end, where climate change has led to unending rains and constant flooding, resulting in huge difficulties for a farming community already in financial crisis. Matters are exacerbated on Kitty and Joe’s farm by mysterious goings-on in the night – Elliot Griggs’s lighting and James Frewer’s sound combining to superbly ominous effect in these scenes – leading the young couple to make ever more desperate and extreme decisions to secure their future in this uncertain world.

Elaine Cassidy is perfect casting as Kitty, the dark diamonds of her eyes testament to the ferocity of her spirit, which she only occasionally allows to slip to the surface as the challenges of the situation fall increasingly on her shoulders. Edward MacLiam has a magnificently brooding, if perhaps a little overloud, presence as the practically minded but struggling Joe and as their farm-worker Flan, Gary Lilburn brings much-needed levity and a marvellously mordant sense of humour. And the excellent Charlotte Randle rounds off the cast as an administrative figure trying to discover an unfortunate truth.

Doyle controls the release of information most skilfully in her twisted narrative and there’s something ingenious about how atmospheric the sinister mystery angle is, Ledwich marshalling her resources most effectively here. Equally, I’m not too sure the ark-building subplot was entirely necessary, the positioning of the interview room is tricky, and there’s something frustrating about the fact that the first thing I think of about this play is the look on the audience’s faces every time someone splashed by. It’s early days for this production so perhaps some of the awkwardness can be ironed out, it’s too good a play and Cassidy’s acting is too spectacularly good for it not to be.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 16th May
Note: if the splashing continues as it does, I’d recommend sitting on the left hand side as you enter, and closer to the far wall if you can.

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