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A CurtainUp London Review

"Why would you keep something that doesn't work?" — Ryan
Jenny (Claire Skinner), Lou (Ophelia Lovibond), Ryan (Sion Daniel Young) and Pete (Ukweli Roach) (Photo: Manual Harlan)
Warning: There are spoilers in this play which I find impossible to review without mentioning.

Barney Norris's first full length play Visitors seen at the Arcola in 2014 was nominated for several awards for new writing. It was about two elderly people living near Salisbury Plain with a young carer and their son. Returning to familiar territory in the countryside, Norris's new play Nightfall gets a production at Nicholas Hytner's fully commercial Bridge Theatre. Widow and farmer, Jenny (Claire Skinner) and her son Ryan (Sion Daniel Young) are fighting a losing battle for the farm to stay solvent after the death of her husband. Jenny's daughter Lou (Ophelia Lovibond) works in a nearby town in an office job but lives in the farmhouse.

Dominating the stage for its full width is an ugly and rusty oil pipeline which we hear Jenny's husband agreed to be sited, to spite his farming neighbor. What the presence of this pipe does, is to turn what might have looked like a rural idyll into a vast visual nightmare. The play opens with Ryan's friend Pete (Ukwelli Roach) up a stepladder welding into the pipeline. This is to divert some of the oil so it can be illegally sold to prop up the ailing business.

As Rae Smith's fabulous set also features a tractor and a large container capsule for the purloined oil, as well as the side of the farmhouse, I found myself asking how the Bridge can afford such a lavish set for a play that is on for just over three weeks? The other problem is that Norris's is a play where we need to be up close and involved and somehow the spaciousness of the Bridge's raked auditorium has a distancing effect. That is distancing except for the front rows at the side of the stage where the audience look for the rest of us as if their heads are sprouting out of the grass.

Chris Davey's beautiful lighting gives us dawn and dusk in the countryside when we look beyond the pipeline.

The battle in this play is not just to keep the farm financially afloat but is about Jenny's need to cling on to her family after the death of her husband from cancer. The first act drags and feels interminably long and laboured. We learn that Pete went to prison after a man was badly hurt in a street fight.

In Act Two, Ryan is building an extension to provide a room for Air B 'n B generated extra income. He hasn't thought about planning permission which would be essential and surely discussed, as these farming communities look for extra ways of raising money, with the Brexit prospect of loss of EU subsidy. Thinking about it, I am unaware of what kind of farming this family are carrying on. No-one seems to feed livestock or tend to crops.

Act Two is thankfully more dramatic as the toxic mother shows how desperate she is to hang onto her children and her home, instead of selling up for the land to be developed as housing. Pete proposes to Lou and offers her a home with him in Dubai. Jenny fights back and holds the prison sentence against him and makes other threats. This is where the full ugly truth comes out which places Jenny and Ryan very much in the wrong and Pete feeling justifiably outraged.

I liked the performances from the three younger members of the cast but was unsure as to whether Claire Skinner really felt like a hard working farmer's wife because we see her planning to spend on musicals, drinking wine and buying one of those portable speakers to play tunes from your phone while ignoring the red printed final demands.

It is hard to find a play which is more desperate, although I suppose the next Salisbury based play could be about the nerve gas attack on the Russian defector and his family. Is this the inheritance of The Cherry Orchard?

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Nightfall by Barney Norris
Directed by Laurie Sansom
Starring: Claire Skinner, Ophelia Lovibond, Sion Daniel Young, Ukweli Roach
Design: Rae Smith
Music: Gareth Williams
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Lighting Design: Chris Davey
Video Design: Ian William Galloway
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0333 320 0051
Booking to 26th May 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th May 2018 performance at the Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, London SE1 2SG (Rail/Tube: London Bridge and a walk)
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