Writer: Carl Grose
Director: Simon Stokes
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
It would be interesting to get a neurological survey conducted on Carl Grose’s brain. It might help explain how he came to write the funny, thoughtful and brilliantly original play which is 49 Donkeys Hanged.
Inspired by spotting a roadside news headline ’49 Donkeys Hanged’ when he was touring South Africa in 1999, Carl Grose’s new play transposes the original story to a small farm in rural Cornwall and gives it a very daring twist. This version is bursting with originality and shows Grose’s uniquely surreal, slightly macabre, style at its best.
The story is centred around Stanley Bray, struggling to look after his farm, and his wife, Joy, who refuses to leave the house after the disappearance of their son, Bob, decades ago. ‘Slaughter House Sue’ works at the abattoir and has been thinking of coming up to the Bray’s farm to make amends for events that lead to Joy’s breakdown so many years before. Hints of hidden secrets and terrible truths are scattered throughout the opening scene. Within minutes Bray, without explanation, is hanging his first donkey.
As we delve further into the backstory, so we dig deeper into Grose’s own mind. Grose manages to weave the inspiration and the writing process for the play into the story itself. Talk about breaking the fourth wall, this play breaks more walls than there are dimensions in an average Doctor Who episode. Pirandello style, here we get a glimpse inside the writer’s subconscious, the writer himself kidnapped by the characters in the play, and then being held hostage for the sake of a new ending. And since this is Grose, and there are now 49 donkeys ominously hanging in the background; you are never sure if you are sitting through a gothic horror story or an absurd comedy.
Billed as a promenade performance, the audience fills the spaces between the various parts of the set and makes way as the performers move around. Set and costume designer Bob Bailey brilliantly recreates the unkempt mess of the Bray farm, the bloody carcasses and industrial noises of the abattoir and the nightmarish donkey backdrop. Even Stanley’s blue overalls seem to have oil stains in just the right places. The audience, sitting or standing around fresh straw bales not only experience the set in 360 degrees but hear and smell it too.
Actors Ed Gaughan, Veronica Roberts and Buffy Davis are brilliant as the three main characters, Stanley, Joy and Sue. William Hartley as the author and Joe Shire as Solomon, are also perfect. Sound designer and composer, Dom Coyote, provides delightful entertainment throughout as a wandering musician. Director Simon Stokes is fully in control of this complicated and delicately balanced production. The cast and creative team superbly manage to keep the humour and the gory possibilities running alongside each other right until the end, ensuring the audience is fully submerged in this absurd psychological, comic, horror story.
Sometimes when you go to the theatre, despite the marketing materials, you just don’t know what to expect. This is surely going to be a hit for Theatre Royal Plymouth and one of the most brilliantly entertaining and original productions of the year.
Runs until 7 April 2018 | Image: Contributed