Stars explained: * A production of no real merit
with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not
enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real
life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A
good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely
achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a
great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major
flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic
which lifts theatre to another plane.
Grange Playhouse, Walsall
BRACKEN Moor is a play of many parts; set in 1937, it is part ghost story, part mystery, part family drama and part social commentary, all set around pit closures in North Yorkshire.
On the face of it, it could be some lost play by the likes of J B Priestly but Anglo-Greek playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell adds modern social commentary to his 2013 play which gives a contemporary feel as he questions the inbuilt inequality of capitalism and the need for a social conscience in business.
It gives a hint of distant echoes of current arguments surrounding the haves and have nots amid votes for Brexit and Donald Trump but more poignant is the fact it is set at a time when our economy was built on coal and mining employed 200,000 men – our last deep coal mine was closed down last Christmas. The British coal miner is no more.
The play opens with the chief collier John Bailey trying to persuade mine owner Harold Pritchard not to close one of his mines with the loss of 140 jobs, which is little more than an exercise in futility.
Robert Onions gives us the right balance of servility to his lord and master and loyalty to his men as Bailey, and has a good Northern accent to boot (hob-nailed no doubt).
Adam Woodward provides a brusque businessman as who sees job losses as merely the price of progress. Harold is a man who goes on the attack if he feels his authority is being questioned, king of his castle and all he surveys, and with all the charm, tact and compassion of a grumpy gorilla with toothache.
With the mine under threat in the background, old friends, the Averys, arrive for a visit from London, Geoffrey, Vanessa and their son Terence, now 22, and as they arrive we discover the dark past which hangs over the house like a cloud.
Harold’s wife Elizabeth is played by Julie Lomas who keeps her charge just this side of madness, all in a delightfully plum 1930’s accent. Her life stopped after her son Edgar, who had been Terence’s best friend, had died 10 years ago after falling down a disused mineshaft on Bracken Moor. He died in agony after three days waiting to be found by the frantic search parties.
Rob Meehan’s Terence is a rather pompous young man, and after three months in a monastery up a Greek mountain, has somewhat rigid views on all things from the metaphysical to the 140 miners about to lose their jobs.
He is staying in Edgar’s old room which, let’s be honest, is a gilt-edged invitation to ghosts, particularly as Elizabeth has been hearing Edgar for 10 years.
And true to form Edgar makes his presence known, putting the fear of God into maid Eileen - a nicely flustered performance by Leanne Brown.
Les Wilkes’ Geoffrey is a very matter of fact sort, hardly one to countenance ghosts, in fact one might question whether he would have enough imagination for any self-respecting ghost to bother haunting him.
Not so Samantha Allen’s Venessa, who is living on the edge of hysteria as she fears she is losing her son in the swirling Edgar vortex enveloping the house. A mini-battle-axe of a mother, she will fight tooth and nail for her Terence.
Director Rachel Waters’ character development is spot on as we see Harold becoming more and more irritated as Edgar’s influence from beyond the grave grows, while his wife drifts closer and closer to madness and we see her clashes with Vanessa over what has now become both their sons.
And that brings us back to Terence with a super performance from Meehan as he drifts between the worlds of living and dead.
And that means it’s time to call Dr Gibbons, played by David Weller, and the good doctor, far from backing Harold’s view that it is all a load of cobblers, muddies the water even further with a supernatural tale of his own.
Which all leads to a twist in the tail when it all comes to a head and the Pritchard’s lives are blown apart and will never be the same again. Among all that is revealed though is perhaps a weaker moment in the plot when the script takes off on a speech about social conscience, and attempts to point out that closing a mine – remember that bit from the start - and leaving 140 men without jobs, with hardship for their already struggling families, might not be Harold’s finest hour. There are alternatives he should consider.
Somehow it all seems a bit divorced from the ghost story plot, never quite appearing a comfortable fit, not that the speech will have any effect.
Harold is a hard-nosed, bluff, north country pit owner, and progress and profit trump any other consideration. The jobs will go and he will go his own way as he always has . . . except he has not escaped unscathed from the Avery’s visit, and, as the non-believer, his legacy from the traumatic events might well turn out to be the hardest to bear.
It might not be a familiar play but it is a well-structured one with a neat plot twist and the tension is built up well by director Rachel Waters who keeps up a cracking pace. The characters are well defined and convincing with accents which fit well into the period, and in the case of Harold and Bailey, have good northern roots.
And speaking of period, it is an excellent set from All Round Propery Services, well lit
by Stan Vigurs with effective sound effects from Colin Meers while Rosemary Manjunath’s costumes all help to create a solid 1930’s feel.
It’s well produced, well acted and even manages a few supernatural shivers along the way - all in all an entertaining evening. To 26-11-16