Review: Fen – Finborough Theatre *****

Caryl Churchill’s Fen explores a community that is as bleak as the landscape itself. A tricky play to stage – and almost impossible to perform well – the Finborough Theatre’s current production of this problematic play is injected with fresh energy and carefully-crafted characters under Ria Parry’s astute direction.

The various character threads, which simultaneously interweave and diverge, all depict individuals that struggle against the inevitability of their fate; to work in the fields of the Fens – a foggy, dank and perpetually cold region in Norfolk – for the rest of their days.

Whilst plot lines include a doomed love story, the taunting torture of a step-mother to her child, the dreams of youth, and the complexity of generational histories and dependencies, the central theme that forms the crux of the play is the continual struggle to cope with both the dashed hopes and the current, spiritless circumstances in which the characters all find themselves. As Angela – sensitively played by Nicola Harrison – declares to Frank – a sincere, and, in places, wonderfully comic Alex Beckett – in a moment of exasperation: ‘you’ve got no spirit…you’re flat and dull….like the landscape’. Such is the sombre state of the environment that the characters eventually come to emulate.

The acting in Iron Shoes’ production of Fen is superb across the board

The often dark themes that permeate Churchill’s Fen are carefully executed through a sensitive, suspenseful and poignant eye for which director Ria Parry is to be commended. All aspects of this production, from the dusty, dirty set design, which makes full use of every box, crate and cupboard on show – nothing is there by chance – to the expert characterisation of the various roles in the play, ranging four generations from the very young to the portrayal of ‘great nan’, is cleverly mapped out so as to give a sincere, touching and, at times, seriously funny representation of the way that the residents of the Fens experience life.

Technically, the production is flawless, with almost imperceptible scene changes, appropriately placed 80s music and the use of a variety of strong and atmospheric lights which work to demonstrate the harshness of the brutally bleak lack of choices in this world. The tralala-ing of Becky depicts her hopeful desire ‘to be a hairdresser when I grow up’ whilst never wanting to ‘leave the village’; yet her introduction as a field worker later in the play along with the rest of the women of the Fen suggests that this is a dichotomous dream which, like the would-be singer Mavis, the infatuated Frank, the bereft Val and the ridiculed Nell, must be compensated for through a series of coping mechanisms, whether it be God, drink, visions of escape, or suicide.

The acting in Iron Shoes’ production of Fen is superb across the board, interjected with humour, sarcasm, pregnant pauses, and the clever witticisms already inherent in Churchill’s writing. With each moment in this production providing tense expectations, for both the characters and the audience, and powerful portrayals of the ancestral heritage which will continue to be borne through the field-working generations, life is shown to drudge on in Fen – the witnessing of such is a treat indeed for any viewer.

***** (5 stars)
Runs until 26th March 2011
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