Writer: Caryl Churchill
Music: Dave Price
Director: Ria Parry
Reviewer: Jemma Bicknell
Bleak, intelligent, evocative. Fen was originally written in 1983 about the desolate lives of village farm workers on the Fens, and it is a Zeitgeist that has matured with age. It is foremost a tragic tapestry of melancholic lives, but there are some skillful moments of comedy threaded through that serve to wrench the audience out of depression's depths when it gets a bit much. Six actors play a staggering twenty two characters, and with ease. Clear-cut and astoundingly quick costume changes make the transitions easy, and Nicola Harrison's interchanges between the utterly nasty, manipulative and abusive Angela to childish Deb are incredible, revealing the two ends of her spectrum as an actress.
The stage is literally a field of soil, and use of props as clean and illustrative as the costumes. A particularly pleasing aspect of this production is how quickly you feel you know the characters, and the way stereotypes, particularly those of kids at play, are drawn upon. A fantastic sequence where the young Becky makes up a song and dance about small-town dreams with the sisters Deb and Shona is insightful and nostalgic. Rosie Thomson is superb in all of her roles. She is somehow able to amalgamate both comedy and tragedy at once, in one facial expression, and to incarnate very diverse roles.
Val's desperate sadness (very poignantly played by Katharine Burford) runs through the play as the sombre and calamitous main motif, which the rest of the village goings-on centre around. We are reminded here of the mulishness of small-town mentality and of some of the changes in society that have taken place in less than thirty years. Interestingly, at the time the play was first shown this could have been a comment highlighting the difference between city and country life, two lifestyles that have now merged in terms of social structures. Or maybe this just signifies the end of 'country life' as we knew it? We get wind of this in the visit Mr Tewson receives from government official Miss Cade, whose inappropriate high heels create the most subtly funny moment in the show.
The relationship between Val and her lover Frank is intense but sometimes feels a little lacklustre, perhaps a few too many long, loaded gazes from a distance. These stretched episodes could explain the wax and wane of the production's power; at times, breath-batingly emotive, at others it feels somewhat like procrastination. Slimmed down it could sustain its strength, but that said, the quieter parts do give the peaks more height. The occasional references to folklore also sit uncomfortably in the plot, despite their historical value. The monologue of Val's ghost feels a bit random, like a truncated version of scene-setting that should have laid the foundations of the play, rather than acting as a palimpsest of background information. The ending regroups the characters and brings us back to small-town sadness, rounding off Val's frenetic monologue with the best aspect of the play, absurdity tinged with sorrow, in the expressive face of Rosie Thomson.
Runs until 26th March