FringeReview UK 2017
The March on Russia hasn’t been revived since its National Theatre debut in 1989. In this Orange Tree production in association with Up in Arms, it’s helmed by its co-director Alice Hamilton. James Perkins details a north-eastern coast bungalow with kitchen sink and implied walls. Nicholas Holdridge paces lighting across thirty hours, with porous video panels of chilly September sky raked for interludes above. Harry Blake’s sound composition is discreet.
Mental distress and memory, two cardinal David Storey themes, are most lauded perhaps in his acclaimed 1970 Home, set in one. So it’s strange another play fissured with them, The March on Russia hasn’t been revived since its National Theatre debut in 1989. This Orange Tree production in association with Up in Arms, helmed by its co-director Alice Hamilton, shows why.
Rooted in exactly its period, a diamond wedding anniversary of a miner and his wife visited by their three children, it’s understated, rehearses grievances of yesteryear, and focuses on an elderly couple. It’s also a masterly distillation of Storey’s themes, filleted and niggling, but eating away over a Chekhovian patience of exposition. No shuddering discoveries, but the one finally revealed does bring on exactly that.
James Perkins details a north-eastern coast bungalow with kitchen sink and implied walls in a space suggesting vast psychic travel. Nicholas Holdridge paces lighting across thirty hours from three a.am, to the morning of the next day, with porous video panels of chilly September sky raked for interludes above. Harry Blake’s sound composition is discreet; this is often a house of sleep.
It’s the dawn quiet allowing for small voices. Colin Tierney’s Colin is a lecturer and author returned for this celebration, Tierney’s command and incisive speech showing how apart from even his siblings he sounds. Yet his guilt – he’s bought his parents this bungalow on his royalties – also edges into his voice and eventually story. His parents though won’t hear it; it’s for his sisters. As the most pacific (inevitably middle) child Eileen points out, if there’s two siblings, there’s harmony. With three, bickering. You could say that about two parents in the room too.
So when Ian Gelder’s rather assured Pasmore relates quietly to Colin his time in the Royal Naval Air Service you feel it’s an intact memory confided because Colin listens. In fact it’s performative, something known, as we later discover. It gives the play’s title when young Pasmore witnessed refugee Russians and armed women, and failure to rescue to the Tsar. More directly, with a social grasp common to the family he eyes the contemporary sharply too. ‘A dozen work at the radar station… Not a sign of bloody life. Two hundred and fifty people work there round the clock.’ Pit community rhythms have been replaced by Morlocks displaced and government-owned.
It’s a moment of high daring and lucidity Gelder’s character never tries again. Gelder traces an arc of command through squabbling reduction to near-collapse, using at each end the same litany of words. It’s so involving you hardy breathe.
And after this too Colin exhibits to arriving sisters his own demons, despite all his nominal success. Connie Walker’s excellent, coping Eileen, sadly given least to say, anchors Colin and their parents against younger childless sister Wendy.
Wendy’s resigned her marriage and membership of Labour just as we discover her mother’s voted Tory for the first time. Sarah Belcher slowly winds from bright counsellor to barely coping resentment that finally breaks out in a hard-speaking tone normally reserved for council, here a dipped-in-family bile. Belcher’s bright command falters superbly at the points where she flies apart. Championing her brother who’s been according to Mrs Passmore favoured, she turns on her mother. Fault-lines and wounded partialities break open before us.
In a lesser playwright the political fractures would suggest the personal might, but Storey’s far too faithful to history and character to suggest anything more than displacement. It’s the couple themselves that produce the subtlest undermining the criss of love against a cross tax at needing to express it. This particularly erupts in the second act when they return with some having had wine, particularly Wendy.
So when Pasmore gifts his wife a present, it’s grounds for his wife’s resentment at it being ‘second-hand’ and leads to the final revelation they’d both tacitly shrouded from their children; and it’s nothing so bland as death. Gelder’s carping and umbrageous tones to needles from Sue Wallace’s superbly calibrated Mrs Pasmore etch themselves on ear and eye. The slow revolve of characters moving round the stage and sometimes exiting is mesmerising. Pasmore’s ‘Might not be here this evening… Might not be here. Full stop’ winds up his wife: ‘You’ve been threatening to die for twenty-five years.’ Her hysterectomy is trumped by his audible pneumoconiosis.
Wallace’s swervy move from resentment to affection, her wrong-footing and occasionally right-footing to catch everyone out, is the deepest marvel of the production. Her smiles brighten whilst her eyes remain desolate. Her pauses before admission are calculated to wind up, most of all, her husband. Her flaws, her sternness towards Colin as a boy and Wendy as a woman make her terribly real.
Revelations are both miniature and devastatingly poignant. Storey has much to tell us of distress and how it’s denied, displaced, coped with. He’s got as much to say about the slag-heaps of social history too, and refuses the obvious.
There’s a current trend in American playwrighting, post-Mamet, that favours hyper-naturalism. It’s there in Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Quartet and Gabriel Family Trio, as well as Annie Baker’s equally masterly The Flick. Storey though got there before anyone, in this and other plays. It’s time he was more thoroughly revived. Hamilton’s directed a similarly quiet playwright Robert Holman in German Skerries. Perhaps she might oblige again. We need more of this.