Writer: Alexi Kaye Campbell
Director: Polly Teale
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
It takes considerable boldness for a modern playwright to set a play in 1937, adhering to the conventions of an era from which so many classics already exist. In this context, how could a voice from the present speak louder than one from the past? And what reason could there be for going back to those times to deal with themes that would be just as relevant in a contemporary setting?
At the beginning, there is a heated discussion over a pit closure in which capitalist interests and social justice come into conflict; and then, in the first of many unexpected turns, a chilling ghost story unfolds. The play’s structure resembles that of An Inspector Calls, in which different genres were mixed so effectively and the arguments about social responsibility echo JB Priestley’s sympathies throughout. Here, the odd marriage of socio-political drama and supernatural thriller proves to be equally potent, each genre feeding off the other and gaining strength as the play progresses.
Set in an austere mansion above a Yorkshire mining village, a married couple who had been bereaved of their 12-year-old son ten years earlier are visited by another couple from London and their 22-year-old son who had been the best friend of the deceased boy; they have not seen each other since the day before the tragic death. What begins as a happy reunion quickly turns sour as the spectre of horrific events out on Bracken Moor takes over. No further spoilers, but suffice to say that nothing here is predictable and surprises await right up to the final seconds.
The production is blessed with several outstanding performances. Daniel Flynn as the bereaved father is bombastic in defending his capitalist values and denying the supernatural, but chastened as the reality of events begins to dawn on him. Helen Schlezenger is deeply moving as his wife, still grieving, still seeking redemption. As the visiting couple, Sarah Woodward is warmly maternal and Simon Shepherd is stoical, exerting his stiff upper lip to proclaim that “a cup of tea smacks of a little sanity”. Joseph Timms plays the son as a young man full of progressive ideals, but still exerting boyish charm.
Co-produced by the Tricycle and Shared Experience, this play is getting its World Premiere here. Alexi Kaye Campbell is a writer with great flair and imagination, his dialogue is crisp and infused with dry humour, his handling of the multi-layered narrative is immaculate and his characters are perfectly drawn. Most importantly, he never shrinks from taking risks; there are many many points where this play could have toppled over and become risible melodrama, but, aided by sure-footed and accomplished direction from Polly Teale, he ensures that this never happens. Tom Piper’s designs give the whole production a handsome look, the bleakness of the set almost inviting ghostly occurrences.
Returning to the initial question, why would a modern writer set a play in 1937? Certainly, the economic conditions and polarised political opinions of that era provide a perfect backdrop for the play’s serious debates. However, the most likely answer lies in the nature of theatre itself. The setting permits a reversion to a traditional, some may say old-fashioned, style, which heightens the drama and accentuates the underlying themes. Ultimately, it is the sheer theatricality of Bracken Moor which makes it unmissable.