Friday, 12 December 2014

Theatre review: Fear in a Handful of Dust

In what is, I think, the last of the World War I dramas I'll be seeing this year, Sevan K. Greene's Fear in a Handful of Dust takes us right down to the intimate level of two men on the front line, but has a perspective on the War that takes in the outposts of the British Empire. During a severe bout of German bombing, some trench walls fall in trapping recent arrival Simon (Jack Morris,) a private from an English regiment but who grew up in the Raj, so considers India his real home. Buck (Henry Regan,) shot in the leg, manages to clamber into the hole with Simon, but with a German sniper watching the trench, they're both stuck there for at least the night, hoping someone from their side will think to look for them in the morning. It's 1916, so the war's been on for a couple of years, and Buck has been with his Irish regiment all that time; but although he's the more experienced soldier, Simon will also be able to teach him a thing or two.

COG ARTSpace is a new theatre out in the hipster boondocks of Haggerston, and lumbered with a terrible name, but on the plus side, and unusually for a pub theatre, the audience does get to sit on what are recognisably chairs, and don't require one buttock to be surgically removed to fit on them. Isa Shaw-Abulafia's design uses a narrow traverse to create the trench the men are stuck together in.


Greene's play uses the familiar set-up of a rather prissy, inexperienced Englishman thrown together with a gruff, confident Irishman, but then uses the two of them in a surprisingly low-key way that means it avoids playing out like a cliché. The two do clash as Buck believes the Irish regiments are used as cannon fodder to avoid harming the English troops, but as Simon identifies more with the Indian regiments he's been kept away from, it doesn't turn into a big dramatic argument.


Instead what we get is quite a sweet, short-lived friendship, Jonny Collis' production toying with a homoerotic edge without labouring it, as we see the two having to get very close very quickly - Simon has to strip naked to rid his uniform of fleas, while the only way he has at hand to sterilise Buck's bullet wound is by pissing on it.


There's also a scene of a gas attack, which it now seems to me is something that's been alluded to but we've seen surprisingly few attempts to stage in this year's cavalcade of Great War plays. Fear in a Handful of Dust covers ground that's been well-trodden in the last year but with its story of a short-lived but genuine friendship, touchingly performed by the two actors, it stakes out its own identity.

Fear in a Handful of Dust by Sevan K. Greene is booking until the 9th of January at COG ARTSpace.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

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