Thursday, 27 June 2013

Theatre review: Bracken Moor

Alexi Kaye Campbell seems a writer who's not afraid to play around with genre. His latest play, Bracken Moor, premiering at the Tricycle in a co-production with Shared Experience, is a meditation on economics and empathy. Though Campbell's political view is rather heavy-handedly incorporated into the narrative (I tend to agree with him but still found it unsubtle,) the format he's come up with is something I've never seen attempted before: Bracken Moor frames its politics in a ghost story. It's 1936, there's a financial crisis, and Harold Pritchard (Daniel Flynn) owns a lot of land in Yorkshire, including a number of coal mines. Ten years ago his young son Edgar died rather gruesomely, and while Harold has carried grimly on, his wife Elizabeth (Helen Schlesinger) has become a nervous, guilty wreck, staying secluded in their big gloomy house, wishing for death. But a decade on she has finally conceded to a visit from her oldest friend Vanessa (Sarah Woodward) and her husband Geoffrey (Simon Shepherd,) who used to be regular guests.

Most importantly, the couple bring with them their son. Terence (Joseph Timms) was Edgar's closest friend when they were 12 years old. Now, he doesn't know about you but he's feeling twenty-two, and as an adult he's rather self-satisfied, probably gay, and has picked up a lot of left-wing politics and Eastern philosophy on his travels. Harold takes a dislike to him but Elizabeth cherishes the link to her lost son.

But this link becomes even greater a couple of nights into his stay, when Terence starts having uncharacteristic fits, and appears to have been possessed by the ghost of his childhood friend, intent on getting his family to understand his frightening, lonely death. Bookended by Harold's meetings with his foreman (Antony Byrne,) offering him desperate plans to try and avoid layoffs at the pit, the play suggests the wealthy industrialist is only dealing with the economic crisis so ruthlessly because of the weight of expectation to do so; perhaps his brush with the supernatural will expose him to the bigger picture.

Tom Piper's set of a large but gloomy country house is bordered by the coal pits, always reminding us what the Pritchards' wealth is built on, but it also serves well for the traditional ghost story framework Campbell has given his play. Polly Teale's production opts to play it pretty straight as a spooky tale, and she achieves a couple of moments that made the audience jump in surprise. There's also a terrific collection of performances, with Schlesinger moving as the broken woman, Woodward appealing as her old friend, Shepherd drily amusing as her husband, and a quiet but significant turn from Natalie Gavin as Eileen, the family's ever-present, jittery maid, as disturbed as anyone by the spooky goings-on but without the luxury of being able to stop working and calm herself down.

Timms is the undoubted star turn though, convincingly taking on the huge range of different sides to Terence we have to see over the course of the evening. Bracken Moor seems to have had a lukewarm reception, and the usually-busy Tricycle was emptier than I've ever seen it tonight, which is a shame. The lack of subtlety in its political message may have put some people off but I was rather taken with Campbell's genre mashup - and the audience that did show up gasped during the show and talked about it enthusiastically on the way out. The story offers the possibility of redemption to even the most hated of business figures, if only he's brave enough to accept it.

Bracken Moor by Alexi Kaye Campbell is booking until the 20th of July at the Tricycle Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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