“They got me outside Habitat”
Thomas Eccleshare’s Pastoral came highly recommended to me, having transferred to the Soho Theatre after premiering at HighTide, but I have to say that this bleakly comic take on ecological catastrophe left me rather cold. All rational people know that whatever ever they offer you, [you] don’t feed the plants, but somebody seems to have ignored that and consequently this version of England is being taken over by the countryside. Hunting for an escape, a small group of people take shelter in a house as they struggle to adapt to their new circumstances but it soon becomes clear that Mother Nature is being a bitch tonight.
That said, they’re closer to having a kiki than you might think. Eccleshare invests his characters with a mordant sense of humour from the off, primarily in Anna Calder-Marshall’s excellent Moll who rips through her dislikes with zero regard for political correctness. The arrival of a family unit seems to locate us further in single-room sitcom territory, especially as the tales that everyone tells of their disintegrating world are of unlikely sightings such as wild mushrooms growing in Subway, rabbits in Aldi and a babbling brook complete with herons and kingfishers breaking through outside of Nandos.
But for all the apparent danger – something highlighted by the way in which Michael Vale’s set slowly collapses throughout the play (the flower darts are genius) – there’s no sense of peril, no sense that the threats that these people are facing are well, threatening, until far too late. Part of this comes from all the action happening off-stage, part of it comes from the relentless questioning of the 11-year-old Arthur in order to get the necessary details out. And part of it comes from Steve Marmion’s direction, which combined with the writing, never loses the slightly absurd, surrealist edges – I’m not sure what the correct response to the fate of the Ocado man is, but surely it ought to strike home more emotionally.
And as the play drew to a close, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat disillusioned that so little had actually been uncovered, or even discussed, about what had been the cause of such a cataclysmic turn of events that was changing the country so. Instead a rather mawkish finale is imposed which tested the limits of even Calder-Marshall’s graceful presence. Polly Frame is employed once again as a prepubescent boy (Arthur) and does what she can, though its not a casting choice I like, and there’s good performances from Richard Riddell and Hugh Skinner as Moll’s sons, but overall it just didn’t feel like there was enough substance to this play and production to offset its eccentricities.