Finborough Theatre March 2011
Caryl Churchill's drama is an unflinching look at lives as bleak as the East Anglian landscape in which they're set, poor farmworkers for whom happiness is imaginable and even very briefly attainable but peace and contentment are far beyond reach.
In this episodic play built largely on the research and improvisations of the original 1983 cast, a woman abuses her stepdaughter because she fears that if she is not a Wicked Stepmother she will have no identity at all. Little girls playing When I Grow Up can imagine nothing beyond housewife and maybe beautician.
A farmer is convinced by a multinational corporation - through logic that I suspect Churchill means us not to be able to follow - that the best way for him to keep his farm is to sell it to them.
And at the play's centre an unhappy woman abandons her children for the man she loves, leaves him because she can't bear to be away from them, and then searches frantically for some third path.
Meanwhile the workers pick potatoes in freezing weather, grumble about their boss and half-recognise that their lives are essentially no different from their ancestors going back centuries, an awareness Churchill makes palpable by bringing ghosts of the immediate and distant past onstage.
With a cast of six doubling and redoubling roles and a design by James Button that puts us right in the dirt and mists of the Fens, Ria Parry's production captures both the bleakness and the barely-glimpsed flashes of light that make up this evocatively recreated world.
Katharine Burford as the straying mother and Alex Beckett as her lover and several contrasting characters lead a uniformly strong cast that also includes Elicia Daly, Nicola Harrison, Wendy Nottingham and Rosie Thomson.
Not exactly 'fun', this revival of Fen is engrossing, convincing, occasionally darkly comic, and likely to linger in your emotional memory.
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Review of Fen - Finborough Theatre 2011