DramaReviewSouth West

Here I Belong – The Bike Shed, Exeter

Writer: Matt Hartley
Director: Elizabeth Freestone
Reviewer: Kelyn Luther

Though the audience is seated in a cabaret style, Here I Belong is a traditional well-made play rather than immersive theatre (the only real bit of immersion is the slice of birthday cake the audiences is  given). Set in a Yorkshire village hall, Elsie (Beatrice Curnew) encounters various women over the course of 60 years, from her best friend to her carer , all played by Nathalie Barclay

tell-us-block_editedEllan Parry’s set is comprised solely of the gingham tablecloth-covered tables the audience sits at and some traditional bunting. It’s a good choice as there’s nothing architecturally remarkable about a village hall and gingham and bunting are classic shorthand for a rural setting.

The central character, Elsie, who we first meet at a village party to celebrate the Queen’s coronation, is very much a land girl in her dungarees with a can-do spirit that the script and Curnew’s performance retains as she grows older. Rather than becoming irrelevant in her old age, she remains the heart of the village. This sounds like a cliché but the play is charmingly light and therefore gets away with sentimentality.

The physicality of Curnew’s performance is adept at portraying Elsie’s progression into old age sympathetically and subtly, avoiding sudden lapses into dodderiness.

The music choices do little more than indicate the decade, although the recurring use of Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade evoking Elsie’s romantic memory works beautifully.

Though Elsie and best friend Dot (Barclay)’s village gossip at the start of the play feels slow, Matt Hartley is a great craftsman as the names of the inhabitants that are the subject of the gossip stick in the audience’s mind without needing much exposition of family trees. Indeed, it’s Hartley’s rich sense of detail that makes the play enjoyable, helping the transition between characters and generations and validating the presence of each character as they impact on Elsie’s life. The unseen characters are just as vivid as those on stage.

Here I Belong isn’t overtly political although it touches on key conflicts in rural communities such as supermarkets taking away local business, unaffordable housing, lack of resources and gentrification. The gentrification question is satirically represented by the character of Scarlett, a Londoner moving to the village supposedly for the community spirit yet more concerned with appropriating this for her own benefit. Barclay draws out humorous habits without turning the character into a caricature.

The decision to double-role is an effective way of showing the central message of the play: that Elsie remains the same and, while different characters come and go, they are reminiscent of people who have been there before.

It’s a gentle play that may hold more relevance for rural audiences than urban ones as it relies on familiarity with village communities in order to  appreciate it fully. The cosy feel makes it an obvious candidate for amateur dramatic productions and it should have a good afterlife there.

While there are poignant moments of nostalgia in the play and an elegiac undertone, it’s ultimately a warm comforting play rather than a treatise on the demise of village life.

Reviewed on 15 November 2016 then touring until 27 November 2016 | Image: Contributed

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