An American horror story

BURIED CHILD
Curve, Leicester, Tuesday 22nd November, 2011

This revival of an early work by American dramatist Sam Shepard is spot on. The tone is exactly right. A very strong cast breathe life into the oddball characters in a way that makes them seem realistic and disturbing in that realism. They could have wandered in from the set of Twin Peaks or any other David Lynch production, for that matter.

The set, a sparsely furnished living room in a remote Illinois farmhouse, is overshadowed by a field of corn. Tall, emaciated plants hang over the characters’ lives like desiccated triffids. This cornfield descends as a curtain to cover the transitions between the three acts, a constant reminder of the mysterious event that has shaped all of their lives. This is not a case of something nasty in the woodshed but buried in the soil out back.

As the title prefigures, this dread secret is bound to come to light, with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy and as the story unfolded, I found myself reminded of other works by other playwrights: the inner life of the characters, the thought sequences are like a blue-collar Arthur Miller. If Willy Loman had been a farmer he would have fitted right in, on the sofa beside debilitated patriarch Dodge (a splendid Matthew Kelly who manages to dominate the scene even though he never stands up throughout the play). The incest and infanticide suggest Tennessee Williams in the boondocks – all of these comparisons have been made by others elsewhere, but for me, the play has strongest kinship with Harold Pinter. The Homecoming in particular sprang to mind: The dysfunctional family, the lack of communication, the menacing undertones, the violent outbursts, a member of the younger generation bringing his female partner to meet the family… It’s all there.

How Shepard makes this his own is more than using the American idiom. With symbolism Henrik Ibsen would be proud of, he teases out and exposes details of these damaged people’s circumstances. More questions are raised than are answered. The overall effect is devastating but you’re not sure why exactly. He uses the three-act structure to show we cannot possibly know people and their lives and motivations in so neat a package and by extension, we cannot possibly fully know other people’s lives at all.

The set is as impressive as the cast. Light shines up through the cracks in the floorboards – more symbolism: the secret coming to the surface. Among the impressive troupe is Michael Beckley’s one-legged Bradley ( the limb was lost in some nebulous incident with a chainsaw). His first entrance is in silence. He manipulates his artificial leg so he can stoop to plug in his clippers in order to cut his father’s hair while he sleeps. It is a scene redolent with menace and humour, grotesque and thrilling. Catrin Stewart as girlfriend-brought-home Shelly is very much our eyes, asking the questions the audience wants to ask. That the answers don’t come and that she has more to her than meets the eye conflate the intrigue.

Director Paul Kerryson delivers a powerful evening at the theatre. That you’re puzzling it out all the way home is not a criticism. This is an engaging production that makes you want to understand. The cleverness of the writing means we are afforded the opportunity to fill in the gaps ourselves. Like Shelly, we piece together our own version of events.

How much of it was real? How much of it memory? And whose memory?

Don’t ask me!

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About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic http://williamstaffordnovelist.wordpress.com/ http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B008AD0YGO and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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