“Being out here. Sometimes there isn’t a lonliness like it. So be brave. If you can.”
So speaks Mick, the mentally fading grandfather of an isolated farming family facing cruel circumstances in Simon Longman‘s Gundog at The Royal Court theatre upstairs.
It is this sense of a strange and unrelenting lonliness that Vicky Featherstone‘s atmospheric production delivers in spades. Here, rural life does not mean fresh air and open space but an oppressive harshness reminiscent of cinematic post apocolyptic survival tales such as 28 Days Later and The Road.
Chloe Lamford‘s design is suitably bleak, a desolate no-mans land of churned up earth, barren but for an indiscernable lump of meat used to signify various farmyard creatures, both dead and alive. Action is minimal but Longman’s cyclical dialogue maintains an engaging forward momentum and the well paced writing allows life to stir in the dour greyness of this wretched landscape. It is satisfisying enough just to watch these broken characters interact and attempt to make sense of their seemingly hopeless circumstances.
The cast have a strong sense of the musicality in the language, particularly Ria Zmitrowicz as deadpan teenage shepherd Becky. Zmitrowicz maintains an unaffected charm despite her incessant teasing of downcast migrant drifter Guy (Alec Secareanu) and as the reality of her life gradually dawns on her, the absence of her early malevolence becomes strangely affecting.
Rochenda Sandall personifies the constant sense of dread and tragic inevitability of the play in her portrayal of older sister Anna, cracked by the burden of responsibility, she seems to be barely holding it together, resigned to her unknown fate. Alex Austin plays Ben, the frustrated, boomerang brother unable to escape the farm and find his own way in the world. Austin’s delivery is sharp and percussive, portraying a familiar, distinctly current embodiment of dissaffected adolescence with convincing volatility.
Alan Williams deserves praise for his measured performance as grandfather Mick, gently moving between dementia addled cantankerousness to candid, steady lucidity with a skillful ease.
Longman’s play manages to conjure some vivid characters and images, including many unseen figures who maintain a spectral presence throughout the play, such as the widowed father who wanders the land like a ghost and the grotesquely drawn butcher who provides the family their meagre living.
This vision of a rural family clinging on to life like the titular lame dog hints at some pertinant issues: an abandoned provincial England, desenfrachised youth, an older generation sleepwalking into oblivion, but these suggestions are unfortunatly too insubstantial to warrant anything more than a passing consideration, for a play so apparently packed with metaphors it was often difficult to decipher what Longman really wanted us take from this.
Gundog offers much to enjoy with solid performances, dark humour and some interesting, if occasionally disorientating structural divergences. However I feel a clearer real world context, be that the reality of British rural life or otherwise, would be appreciated, and might provide more to chew over. 3.5/5
Review written by Dean Elliott.
Gundog is currently showing until Saturday 10th March 2018 at the Royal Court Theatre. To find out more about the production, visit here…