Writer: Nick Darke
Director: Richard Avery
Sound: Ray Williams
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
As a playwright Nick Darke, who died in 2005, was known for his work at the extremes of British theatrical life: the major national companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and small quirky or innovative companies such as the Victoria in Stoke and Kneehigh in his native Cornwall. Landmarks comes closer to the second group, researched on the farms of Cheshire and staged at the Gateway, Chester, in 1979.
It’s difficult to find any performance history after that and, though a clever, humane and funny piece, it is perhaps too unassuming to appeal to, for instance, major regional theatres: even its length, 80 minutes of stage time in two short acts, is modest. It is, however, ideally suited to small-scale touring, especially in a production so thoroughly attuned to Darke’s paradoxical blend of the whimsical and the practical, of myth and the work-place – Richard Avery’s empathy with the piece no doubt derives from his having been in the cast directed by Darke in 1979.
The three nights in the East Riding Theatre come in the middle of some 20 one-nighters, mostly in East and North Yorkshire village halls, and this is not one of those productions where we wonder at the expertise of the home company in producing visual effects on a small wing-less stage. Other Lives Productions, despite strong links with ERT, are an on-the-road company and travel light: the only set design credit is to Ed Ullyart for “building the stocks” – and they are essential to the plot.
Not that there is much plot. Wilf and his brother-in-law Totty are small farmers: Wilf is devoted to the old ways and ploughs with horses (this is the 1930s), Totty is more go-ahead and has bought a Fordson tractor. Darke has an ear perfectly attuned to affectionate squabbling, whether between Wilf and Totty or between Wilf and his teenage daughter Alice, but there is a particular reason behind Wilf’s arguing with Totty: his brother-in-law has sold him a cow which set about dying as soon as the deal was done.
Darke gets much humour from the balance between folk superstition and down-to-earth scepticism – the characters have their moments of shrewdness, but credulity runs deep, especially when a stranger appears and they find all kinds of reasons for deciding he is a Boggart – a malevolent spirit. Act 2, three years after Act 1, shows the effects of this belief, but even so, the comparative strengths and weaknesses of horses and tractors loom large in Wilf and Totty’s conversation.
Neil King’s craggily traditional Wilf misses none of the drollery of the script and chimes perfectly with Gordon Meredith’s more fanciful Totty, given to extravagant narratives of the glory of industry. As Alice Roxanne Waite’s stroppy teenager in Act 1 is a delight; the soberer Alice of Act 2 is more grown up, less funny, but convincingly sincere. Neighbour Mrs. Mayse, always returning from China or setting off up the Nile with her cats, is the funnier for Jane Hollington’s down-to-earth delivery. Richard Avery’s stranger is amiably neutral – we can make up our own minds.
The publicity – “engaging and gently comic” – gets it right, about the production as well as the play. After Beverley there are still ten one-nighters and villagers in the likes of Brandesburton and Potto should be thinking of making their way to the village hall.
Touring Yorkshire | Image: Contributed