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Fen, by Caryl Churchill

Friday, 4 March, 2011

Playing now, at the Finborough Theatre

Featureless, abundant, windswept - the landscape of drama

Fen is a 90 minute drama, first performed in 1983, the first play in a three-month season of plays by women writers at the award-winning Finborough Theatre.

The play is a snapshot of rural life in that slightly strange area of Norfolk south of Kings Lynn, and north of Ely where landmarks are rare and the dark, rich earth – reclaimed from sea and swamp – is extraordinarily productive. But the drama attempts much more than just a snapshot. It links the continually changing and often personally painful circumstances of the area – from the draining of the fens to the problems of making agriculture economically viable in the 20th century – to the world of the 1980’s and to the tragedy of one particular woman, a mother who deserts her children for a lover, and yet finds that she cannot live without them.

All of the actors here are called upon to play multiple – and often very different – roles, moving from, in one instance, Japanese businessman to grandmother for example. It has to be said that in most cases, these are extremely successful. In a few instances though, a character doesn’t have quite enough to sustain it, and there is an element of trickery for trickery’s sake. Nevertheless, there are a lot of strong perfomances. Nicola Harrison for example, moves smoothly from a boy scaring birds to a supremely vindictive step-mother to a born-again Christian in a seamless manner. The same is true for others with less dramatic shifts of character to cope with.

The play is made up from a number of short illustrative scenes – some concerned with agriculture and the particular circumstances of the area, others with individuals and the circumstances that surround their lives, given the limited possibilities that have been open in this peculiar part of the world. The whole thing revolves around the passionate Val (Katherine Burford) whose story is at the heart of the elements of the plot.

Designer James Button has given director Ria Parry an imaginative set to work with and the pace is nicely sustained throughout. Whether the strength of the passion at the heart of the drama is enough to keep the other elements of the plot in perspective is something that will be a personal judgement. Sometimes, there seemed to be slight imbalances between scenes based on what was obviously painstaking research and the need to keep a focus on the central proposition, but this is a very watchable play, albeit with moments that are acutely painful. And what cannot be denied is the overwhelming authenticity of both the voices and their stories, springing from the soil as readily as the abundant crops that have only sporadically sustained them.

Cast: Alex Beckett – Wilson, Frank, Mr Tewson, Geoffrey; Katharine Burford – Val, Ghost; Elicia Daly – Mrs Hasset, Becky, Alice, Ivy; Nicola Harrison – Boy, Angela, Deb, Mrs Finch; Wendy Nottingham – Shirley, Shona, Miss Cade, Margaret; Rosie Thompson – Japanese businessman, Nell, May, Mavis

Director – Ria Parry; Designer – James Button; Lighting – David W Kidd; Sound/composer – Dave Price; Assistant Director – Laura Keefe

reviewed Thursday 3 March

(c) michael spring 2011

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