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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Harvest
Royal Court Theatre September 2005

Fifty years ago the Royal Court Theatre helped generate a revolution in British drama with its championing of what unfriendly critics called 'kitchen sink drama,' plays set in the domestic world of the urban and rural working classes, characters and settings that had previously been somewhat ignored by London theatre.

And returning to the Royal Court to see Richard Bean's new play is in some ways like entering a time warp. There's the farm kitchen (complete with sink), there are the characters speaking carefully-modulated-so-as-to-not-be-totally-unintelligible Yorkshire, and there's a play whose whole purpose is to put before us and celebrate the honest virtues of English farming folk.

The only real differences are that the play of fifty years ago (which might have been written by, say, Arnold Wesker) would have had a political agenda this one lacks, it would probably have had considerably less wry humour than this one, and it would - one hopes - been less than three hours long.

The play covers 91 years in the life of a farming family, from just before the First World War to the present, with scenes set fifteen or twenty years apart. One of two brothers goes off to fight and lose his legs, while the other marries the girl they both loved. A couple of decades later, the cripple's plan to convert to pig raising is put into effect, as control of the farm passes to a niece.

In the 1940s, a German prisoner of war joins the family; in the 1970s a comically mad pigman is hired, and in the new century the wheelchair-bound uncle, now 110 years old, is still fighting to keep the place going. (And I haven't mentioned two generations of the local squirearchy who they continually battle, or a handful of other colourful characters met along the way)

Clearly we are not entirely in the realm of kitchen-sink realism here, and one of the main flaws of Bean's play (along with the inordinate length - at least 40 minutes could easily and profitably been cut) is that, with a couple of exceptions, the characters are one-dimensional symbols (the Salt-of-the-Earth Farm Woman, the Evil Squire, etc.), and even those allowed to show more than one note - the long-lived uncle, the German, etc. - don't really grow or develop.

So what we have turns out to be more a historical pageant than a drama - a parade of semi-allegorical characters designed to celebrate the Solid English Virtues, rather than to depict or illuminate reality. After all, the Royal Court dramatists of a half-century ago accomplished their job well, and we've all seen plenty of plays set in kitchens.

What keeps this play from being as pointless a throwback as it might therefore have become is the fact that Bean is a good writer, with a wry sense of humour that he allows his characters to share. The crippled uncle is kept from being just a clumsy symbol because he repeatedly surprises us with a sharp wit and an ironic distance from his own situation, and the same is true of some of the other characters.

The mad pigman is a delightful comic creation who livens up the play somewhere around the two-hour mark, just as audience energy is flagging, and only in a misconceived final scene involving robbers does the playwright's comic instinct go wrong.

Wilson Milam's direction cannot keep the play from too often meandering aimlessly, and a fine cast are too often hamstrung by their one-dimensional roles, with only Matthew Dunster as the centigenarian,  Jochum Ten Haaf as the German, and Adrian Hood as the pigman able to make the most of their limited opportunities.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Harvest - Royal Court 2005