Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Theatre review: Gundog

Simon Longman’s pastoral nightmare Gundog is the final Upstairs show in the current Royal Court season (surely a new announcement is overdue?) and once again sees Vicky Featherstone channel something of the spirit of Edward Bond in this space: After the dead baby play we now get something that, though in some ways effective, in others comes perilously close to misery porn. Becky (Ria Zmitrowicz) and Anna (Rochenda Sandall) are sisters living on desolate land in the middle of nowhere. They come from a family of sheep-farmers, but after the deaths of their parents, and an infection that took out most of their flock, they have nothing left. Not knowing any other way of life they now steal a few pregnant ewes from other flocks they hope nobody will miss, and just about subsist on the money they get from slaughtering and selling the lambs.

One night an immigrant from an unspecified Eastern European country, calling himself Guy Tree (Alec Secareanu,) turns up on their land and, having nowhere else to go, ends up joining their life; eventually the sisters' missing brother Ben (Alex Austin) also returns.

The middle section of the play flashes back to a few years earlier, when their mother had recently died but their (unseen) father was still alive, physically at least. To say Gundog shows a lonely existence would be an understatement, Guy is the only reminder that there even is such a thing as an outside world, and he’s soon sucked into their isolation as well; at one point Ben has a phone, and the suggestion that he actually knows someone he could talk to on it is treated as a hilariously obvious lie by his sisters. The only respite from the grimness comes in the flashbacks, from Alan Williams’ warm portrayal of the siblings’ grandfather, Mick; the fact that the closest thing to comedy comes from the confused stories of a man with dementia says a lot in itself.

What does really work is the dreamlike tinge Featherstone gives everything: Chloe Lamford’s set is a desolate brown field with two huge piles of mud either side of it (not sure why there’s a radio on one of them, it’s never used,) a misty nothingness behind it, and a rotting carcass dragged around it to represent all animals, living or dead. A recurring theme of Longman’s play is time losing all meaning, the phrase “what year is this?” initially used sarcastically about how backward their lives are, keeps getting repeated until it’s a genuine question. Years go by in a flash of light while the characters remain in stasis, and though the location theoretically evokes wide open spaces, in reality the whole thing becomes a claustrophobic nightmare.

I was less enamoured with Featherstone’s decision to stage the entire opening scene at the side of the stage, in a section only the far right of the audience could see without cricking their necks; and while the final scene doesn’t quite succumb to Multiple Ending Syndrome, Longman’s determination to give every character a poetic closing speech does feel laboured. There’s a lot to like in the performances, led by Zmitrowicz’ chattering Becky contrasting with Sandall’s taciturn, resigned Anna; but the piece ends up being too one-note, relentlessly bleak, to really capitalise on its setup.

Anyway, I don’t know why there was a whole conversation about what sheep’s wool is good for, when the show looks like a knitwear catalogue that's dropped in a puddle.

Gundog by Simon Longman is booking until the 10th of March at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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