Cush Jumbo, Rory Kinnear is the latest actor to make a playwrighting debut at the Bush. It's Andy's 21st birthday; severely mentally and physically disabled, he lives in a care home but as it's a special occasion his carer will be bringing him to his mother's house for a small party. Carol (Amanda Root) is a bag of nerves as she waits for her son to arrive, constantly on the phone to the carer or the care home manager she can't stand. When her daughter Claire (Louise Brealey) arrives she's also pretty distracted, as she'll be bringing boyfriend Mark (Adrian Bower) along to meet her family for the first time. Carol's parents are the only other expected guests at the party, but it wouldn't be a drama without an uninvited one, and that's Claire and Andy's estranged father Ian (Adrian Rawlins,) hoping to be allowed to see his son after five years' absence.
Kinnear is working from his own family's experience of caring for a severely handicapped relative in The Herd, and paints the very distinct pressures it puts on all the family members - and not just the most obviously affected Carol, whose whole life for the last two decades has revolved around waiting for the call to tell her her son's died.
The question was always going to be whether The Herd would have made it to the stage if its author didn't have theatrical connections. Given how impressive it turns out to be you'd have to hope it would have, although it might not have got quite as high-profile a creative team, with the NT's Russian classics specialist Howard Davies directing, and the cast also including Kenneth Cranham as genial grandfather Brian, whose age has added him to the family's disabled members. Meanwhile the ubiquitous Anna Calder-Marshall is his wife Patricia, a frequent show-stealer. Nobody does disdain quite like Calder-Marshall so the role of Patricia who is almost defined by it could (and who knows, might) have been written for her. Her own coping strategy for her family's difficulties has been to demand impossible standards of everyone outside of it, and she has a particularly fun exchange with Bower as performance poet Mark is interrogated by a woman for whom every answer he gives will inevitably be beneath contempt.
Kinnear turns out to have an ear for comic dialogue which despite the serious subject matter underpinning the play becomes its prevalent tone. For the most part the comedy and drama are balanced well, although the unexpected, tense reunion with Ian makes for a middle section that's far too consistently shouty - Brealey in particular seems to do little else but shriek "get out!" at Rawlins every time she comes on stage. The play's dénouement is also easy to guess, but for the most part it's an accomplished debut.
On a lovely traverse design from Helen Goddard that takes over the whole of the Bush to drop the audience right into the family home, Root's intensity leads a committed cast who collectively make the unseen Andy come to life, and demonstrate the extent to which he's come to define these people's lives - to the point where Patricia's often brutal approach to her grandson's life makes sense. It's left to Brian though, for most of the play a quietly likeable background presence, to pull the story's message together in a barnstorming final few scenes from Cranham.
The Herd by Rory Kinnear is booking until the 26th of October at the Bush Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.