“The earth sings when he touches it”
The slow decline of the English rural economy and the way of life that accompanies it has proved a fruitful one for playwrights and it is a subject to which Daniel Foxsmith has turned, drawing on his own brief experiences in a livery yard, for his third play Weald for Snuff Box Theatre. And hand in hand with this changing world come questions about our place within it, once clearly defined gender roles now more fluid, Foxsmith suggesting that modern masculinity is in crisis for both young and old in this intriguing two-hander directed by Bryony Shanahan.
Now in his 50s, grizzled and weatherbeaten, Sam has worked the yard as long as he can remember but life seems to be passing him by – his wife has left him and he’s sold off the farmhouse to make ends meet. And it’s a life to which Jim, a 25-year-old full of cocky swagger, has returned, after flying the coop six years ago for life in London. There’s much history between the pair, not least in the manner of Jim’s parting and as he wangles his way back into his old job, secrets old and new start to spill forth like imaginary animal feed into a bucket.
Foxsmith’s writing is meticulous indeed, matched by Christopher Hone’s detailed design, but perhaps a little too careful here. Much time is spent constructing character and a fully-fleshed world for them to inhabit, leaving little time for drama to unfold effectively. Dan Parr’s Jim rattles through a quarter-life-crisis though David Crellin is fantastic as Sam’s troubles mount up to cause a psychotic break. And one can see the care taken to show the difficulty and delicacy of these two men being emotionally honest with each other.
But for a play set in the grime of the countryside talking about such graft, Shanahan’s production doesn’t quite have enough grit, enough earthiness to truly ground Foxsmith’s writing. The intimate space of the Finborough doesn’t really allow for much of the expansive physicality of working with animals, a bracing sequence of horse running aside, and it occasionally gets too wrapped up in realism (the mimed animal feed, the countless other props) where its strengths seem to lie in a starker symbolism, especially in the swells of Seth Rook Williams’ lighting.
And ultimately, as symbolic as Jim’s white t-shirt is – pristine throughout as a subconscious reflection of how committed he really is to this change – it’s also indicative of a production that needs to be less afraid to get its hands dirty.