Edinburgh Fringe 2010
In rural England one dysfunctional nuclear family caught between tradition and progress is about to go nuclear in this excellent new work from tipped playwright Clara Brennan. She explores fundamental relationships with humour, compassion and a light symbolic touch that’s reflected in the simple but thought-provoking set. A rarity on the fringe, Bud Take The Wheel I Feel A Song Coming On is classic playwrighting with thematic and symbolic nods to Ibsen that’s a cut above the usual ‘issues’-based drama.
Teenage pregnancy, coming out, miscarriage and domestic violence. Wait, come back! This five-person drama from up and coming playwright Clara Brennan may tick all the ‘issues’ boxes that so often add up to lifeless fringe theatre. But it does so only in the course of a compelling, character-led study of that most un-flashy yet perpetually fascinating of subjects – the family.
In a rural northern village, the 16-year-old daughter of a thatcher finds herself pregnant by her parent’s lodger. She hasn’t spoken to her father for eight years – since her brother left home following a childhood full of physical abuse. Now he’s back to secure a contract on the development of the old defunct mill. Family secrets, in good old-fashioned style, are about to come out.
Everybody here is gasping to break free. The gaunt mother who might have been a Joni Mitchell in another life bestows her guitar upon her daughter like a key to freedom. The father, clinging to the age of craftsmanship and bellbottoms, and to his own embattled pride, is haunted by the last tune his wife wrote before their van swerved off the road to freedom and into the apparent dead end of parenthood. In contrast, the gay, prodigal son is a picture of progressive adjustment and the daughter proves there’s more in the genes than recourse to the belt buckle when she starts raving (in diligently captured school yard parlance) about Gaudi.
Meanwhile two ladders hung with crockery and pans double up as the defunct mill, crouching to the back of an otherwise literal sitting room set. A more surreal touch still is the tiny scream, audible to the audience too, which members of the family think they hear from time to time – it sounds, the son jokes, like a Borrower getting his hand trapped in a door, and its origin is almost as unexpected.
This is full of insightful lines about the apparently immutable laws of family life, like the young daughter’s ‘the worst thing about being the last lamb is you can see so far ahead of you’ and the mother’s ‘a mother sees the best years of her children’s lives and they only see her worst’. And the scenes of recrimination between the son and his mother and father especially sparkle with feeling.
But this home has been constructed on more than lies. There’s creative passion in each of them, and when the mill burns down it is not such a straightforward echo of the orphanage in Ibsen’s Ghosts – this group of individuals bound together by blood have discovered that classic family tragedies can be rewritten.