Writer: Chris Dunkley
Director: Patrick Sandford
Reviewer: Andy Moseley
‘You miss so much when you’re looking the other way’ proclaims Jen, one of the two characters in Smallholding. By the end of the play I was more concerned about what I’d seen looking the right way.
Smallholding seems to have been conceived to meet Hightide Festivals selection criteria. Set in a rural community in the East of England to get the local tick with characters returning from the big city to give it the national tick. Now let’s get the regional concerns tick, with references to supermarkets destroying farmers selling them local produce, and finally let’s add in drug addiction and a side order of what people might do to get their next hit, for the tackling social issues tick. Who needs a well-written play when you’ve got all that?
Smallholding opens with Jen and Andy crossing the threshold of their new cottage and planning to start a small farm, with a sense of optimism that belies nothing of the reasons that led to them being there. You know it’s going to end in tears of course, this is theatre, these things never have a happy ending, but the speed with which it goes wrong is the first problem with the play. There is never a feeling that they are making progress, as they immediately have unpaid bills for reasons linked to Andy’s past, and, probably, present. Because there is nothing before this, it’s impossible to empathise with their situation or care for them.
It quickly emerges that Andy had a drugs habit, and has relapsed. No explanations are given, other than him meeting an old school friend. It’s an event not linked to, or justified by, the story. Shortly afterwards Jen tries to strike deals with the local supermarkets, and this is an event with a back story that could provide a reason for the relapse and lift the whole thing beyond the superficial level it gets stuck at, but the link is never made.
Instead Jen goes from being determined to make it on her own, revealing Andy was never part of her plans, to swiftly succumbing and begging for a hit in a style that wouldn’t have convinced even if she hadn’t had that determination a short while before. As soon as she has her first hit, she and Andy are getting on like a house on fire, all problems and aspirations completely forgotten, and not a shred of willpower between them. This is in spite of another box-ticking issue at the heart of their relationship being the driver of the action in this happy addict scene.
More drug addict and drug dealer clichés follow as thing play out to an almost inevitable conclusion, and then that’s it. The actors make the most of a bad script, Matti Houghton as Jen trying to find some middle ground between the oblivious happiness and outright hostility that are the default modes of her lines, and Chris New as Andy switching from one dimensional junkie to Lee Mack Not Going Out-style punster in an attempt to give his character some semblance of a personality.
The problems, however, lie squarely with the script. No attempt has been made to link the different strands of the narrative and go beyond clichés and surface skimming to produce a compelling story with characters that have any real depth. As an initial idea it may have looked good, but as a finished product it isn’t.
Photo: Mike Eddowes |Runs until 9 March