Film Review: A Smallholding

“You won’t make it”

I should probably start this off with a full disclosure notice – I invested in this film! Well, it was peanuts really as sadly I don’t have enough money to be investing here and there but given how much I enjoyed the theatrical productions of Chris Dunkley’s Smallholding (at the Nuffield and then at the Soho), I was intrigued to see how it would turn out as a film and so joined my first ever Kickstarter campaign. And I have to say it was fascinating, I loved the updates that we got, lending a real insight into the lengthy film-making process and the unique pressures it brings with it so if you see a project you like the look of, I’d recommend digging as deep as you can. 

But back to A Smallholding as it has been retitled here, the film adapted by playwright Chris Dunkley and director Chris New who starred in the original productions but has moved behind the camera here (he was a busy boy indeed as he directed, shot, edited, graded and mixed it). and what a beautiful thing it is. I’m well-disposed to the piece already but it really does flourish in the new medium, its location in deepest rural Northamptonshire allowing scenes to be played out in the vast emptiness and quiet, really emphasising the totality of the seclusion that Andy and Jen originally sought for their sanity and seeing how it soon curdles into oppressive isolation. Continue reading “Film Review: A Smallholding”

Re-review: Smallholding, Soho Theatre

“That’s a turnip for the books”

I’ve enjoyed previous plays by Chris Dunkley so when the invitation to see Smallholding, a co-production between HighTide and the Nuffield, came my way, I took the chance to make my first ever visit to Southampton (via a matinée in Salisbury of course) where I had a great time, ranking the play 22nd out of the 300 odd I saw last year. Spurred on by its success, the production has now resurfaced in the sweltering heat of the Soho Upstairs, where the bruising intimacy of this two-hander has only gained power. 

After a rocky time of it, Andy and Jen have moved back to the East Northamptonshire village of their youth and taken on a small farm, a smallholding where they intend to make a new life, rearing pigs and growing parsnips and garlic. It’s difficult to outrun demons though and the rural isolation presents its own set of challenges – Smallholding is a story about how we sometimes grip so tightly onto the things we deem most precious to us, we don’t notice them shattering in our hands.  Continue reading “Re-review: Smallholding, Soho Theatre”

Review: The Precariat, Finborough

“You’re tinkering with a fundamentally unfair system”

The plays that end up in the Sunday/Monday slot at the Finborough have to ride the luck of the draw when it comes to the sets upon which they have to perch, borrowing space as they do from the main show. And for Chris Dunkley’s new play The Precariat, the garishness of Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi’s set has actually worked well here for in having to cover it up with dark drapes, much of design consultant James Turner’s work is then done. It forms the ideal backdrop for the sparse bits of battered furniture and the array of video screens that litter the intimate space in which this tale of a teenage North Londoner trying to find his place in a world decimated by the financial crisis.

Fin is a 15 year old schoolboy and is clearly a bright boy but the road ahead is far from clear. His mother is depressed and disconnected, his younger brother has fallen in with a bad crowd and has started taking drugs and his petty criminal father is barely on the scene. And in a Tottenham still recovering from the seismic shock of the 2011 riots, Fin only sees opportunities shrinking away for him and his brother alike, both in terms of the lack of decent jobs in the immediate future and with the long-term prospects in a society that has been irrevocably broken.  

Dunkley is a writer I’ve come to admire (I made my first ever trip to Southampton to see his Smallholding) with a gift for combining powerfully intimate stories with a wider social context, and it is a similar model that he employs here. Sharply observed dialogue captures a visceral sense of how disaffected this world is – Kirsty Besterman is blistering as Bethan, the very epitome of parental dysfunction as she invites her feckless ex over, ostensibly to reconnect with his sons but really just to have a quickie in the flat – and as the dynamics of the family shift with desperation and darkness creeping in from all sides, there’s a pungently compelling depiction of the seemingly inescapable trap that social, economic and cultural deprivation creates.

What works less well is the attempts to locate this drama in the big picture, the proselytising and prophesising about the evils of capitalism and damage that will be consequently wreaked on the world doesn’t ever feel that natural, not least coming out of the mouth of a 15 year old. These references to the wider world feel shoehorned in and though Scott Chambers is superbly naturalistic as the troubled adolescent Fin, he struggles to make such erudition feel genuinely real.

Part of this also comes from a delivery of the North London patois which I personally found near-impossible to decipher at times. It sounds incredibly authentic but so much of his dialogue was swallowed up that I was left grateful for the playtext. Likewise with the sound effects for some of the supporting characters’ voices– drug lord Balthazar is superbly and creepily portrayed through video alone and Fin’s one ray of light is the friendly voice on the other end of the drive-thru intercom who we only ever hear – Chris New’s direction perhaps erred on the side of atmosphere rather than clarity, this was a rare time that my deafness really impacted on being able to fully comprehend a play in such a small theatre.

But New’s use of the video screens is frequently witty and inspired, always feeling an integral part of the production rather than something bolted-on for effect, and he navigates the quicksilver shifts in tone well, balancing the grimness with an everyday levity, reminding us that lives like these are being lived all around us and are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Perhaps the play could have done with a little more ambiguity in its political arguments to create an intellectual debate to match the physical drama, but this still remains an ambitious attempt at capturing something of the modern malaise that is blighting so much of our disaffected youth. 

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £3
Booking until 30th July

Review: Smallholding, Nuffield

“London and that were just a phase”

Two former junkies break into an abandoned East Northamptonshire farmhouse – such is the opening premise of Chris Dunkley’s new play Smallholding, a co-production between Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre and the HighTide festival. But it soon becomes apparent that this 75 minute two-hander is no stereotypically sunken-cheeked tale of crackheads and crime but rather a brutally frank and insightful exploration of the cruel dynamics of addiction and co-dependency on a young couple trying to make a future for themselves.

Signs look promising at first. Matti Houghton’s well-put-together Jen has a breezy determination to make good on the opportunities offered by her well-intentioned family and fresh out of rehab, Chris New’s edgily wiry Andy is full of positive thinking and enthusiasm for the bio-dynamic farming that is their chosen way forward. The thrill of setting up home together and making a new life soon wears thin though against the privations of rural life and the shadow of temptation that lingers unshakably over their relationship. Continue reading “Review: Smallholding, Nuffield”

Review: The Soft of her Palm, Finborough

“I forgive you, because I love you so much”

Not many plays are set in Northampton and though Chris Dunkley’s The Soft of her Palm takes place there, it is more a signifier of ‘everytown’ rather than tied to this specific location. For domestic violence – the subject of this disturbingly intense and thought-provoking 80 minute play – can happen to anyone, anywhere. The show opens in the present day where Sarah has crashed her car outside Phil’s house, she steps inside to recover but it soon becomes apparent that this is no accidental meeting – the pair know each other only too well and their relationship emerges to be a highly toxic and horrifically violent one.

Dunkley then rewinds scene by scene over the course of a year to trace how we have gotten to this place but at each step, the playwright confounds our expectations and prejudices as we edge ever closer to a fuller understanding of the truth. And that truth is essentially that these are two damaged individuals, equally adept at manipulation: struggling chef Phil is frustrated by his business dealings and his inability to communicate, Sarah’s psychology is deeply troubled and rooted in past insecurities, neither one is above shamelessly putting Sarah’s young daughter Poppy in the frontline of their battles, neither one seems truly able to move on from the other, with destructive consequences. Continue reading “Review: The Soft of her Palm, Finborough”