Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Her (Charlotte Bate) and Him (Harry Egan); children, awkward teenagers, bumpy twenty-somethings. We never learn their names or the name of the farming village that has nurtured them – the first children born there in twenty years as farms become holiday lets, barns converted, herds sold off. They have known each other all their lives, bound by that ‘only babies’ bond and inevitable perhaps that they should fall in, and out, of love. She is quick with words, placed on the Gifted and Talented programme at school, smug with it. Him, he’s better with his hands, understands the land, and loves the tradition. They grow apart; of course they do, with different ambitions and desires but the village and its history, sad and joyful, keeps bringing them back together.
In Blackthorn playwright Charley Miles has created a love song to place she knows well, a land that has shaped her. Blackthorn is a very British hedgerow plant, tough, pretty in early summer covered in blossom turning to bitter fruit, prickly but a useful stout hedging plant to keep stock contained, hard to dig out. Blackthorn explores the theme of the rapid change in rural communities and a fast disappearing way of life, of house prices that drive away young people, the tough economics of farming, the joy of tradition for some but the cage it creates for others. However Miles lifts this large and difficult theme off the page by writing about the lives of two very real young people and the personal tragedy that unfolds for them as they are pushed and pulled by those economic and cultural forces.
All cast and creatives are to be commended on such a tight blend of performance, soundscape, lighting and direction but particular mention to movement coach Natasha Harrison. This is not a dance piece but choreography is a good description of what she has done, adding to the characterisation without overwhelming it. Bates and Egan are equally good with interpreting the physicality of the piece as well as the words. Both give nuanced and powerful performances.
Blackthorn was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn prize in 2017 and deservedly so. It is a beautifully crafted text telling of the waxing and waning relationship of Him and Her over twenty or so years of rural life. Echoes of that other great love affair set in the ancient countryside of Yorkshire quite rightly are felt here – Her with the ambition, lust for adventure, motivation to break free from the claustrophobia of a rural community, wanting to better herself. Him with the love of the land, roots deep in family and belonging.
A tiny criticism, the only one, is that Miles could trust her audience more with some of the analogies in the text, shaved even more from the sparse sentences. Her writing is so adept at creating atmosphere and character that we get it and in a handful of places don’t need it spelt out so much. But this is perfection on the stage and works so well in the round in this lovely venue.