The Red Soil

Tue 30th October – Sat 3rd November 2012

reviews

James Bell

at 23:25 on 30th Oct 2012

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The Red Soil, a Chekhovian psychological drama set in the deep south of the United States, is a strangely familiar, and often slightly laboured piece, but is nevertheless thoroughly engaging and a wonderful example of new writing on the Cambridge drama scene.

The story, at least as it appears in the first act, is a little formulaic, clichéd even. An old farmer, predictably a cantankerous drunk who has no regard for his family, dies and his three sons descend upon their childhood home to fight it out over the inheritance, the contested memory of the past and the place they occupy now that their father is dead. The overriding theme here, which smacks you in the face from the very beginning, is “family”. Family is presented as one of life’s constants: whether you like it or not, “La familia es todo”, as Francisa Posada-Brown says in her spectacular performance as Gabriela. These relations can be highly restrictive- each man in his own way has been limited by his relationship with his father. Caleb has turned to a life of crime and alcoholism, Sam has buried himself in the running of the farm and Matthew has high-tailed it to Chicago where he has developed a gambling addiction. Within this scheme much feels very familiar. The city-boy-meets-simple-country-folk path is a well worn one, as is the desire of each of the brothers’ to get his hands on part of the inheritance. Out of this a murder plot is hatched and at the interval one can picture the steady, predicable, albeit well written and well acted, denouement to the drama.

After the interval, however, things begin to pick up. Whereas all the actors offer sophisticated and nuanced performances it is here that Ben Bayley as Sam really comes into his own. As the action jumps between past and present and a series of revelations delivered through sensitive and well presented monologues add layers of meaning and irony to what came before, Bayley expertly captures the sense of flux all the characters are subject to as he desperately attempts to balance what he believes is moral with his need to preserve the status quo of his life. The second act, surprising, original, sensitive, is what ultimately saves this play, what legitimises it as it gives a new perspective on the established themes it explores. All the actors really successfully develop their characters here in what is quite a restricted environment- everything is confined to one room. Marcus Martin as Caleb added an acute vulnerability to the swaggering, posturing cowboy of the previous act. Michael Cotton as Matthew delivered a penetrating monologue and Posada Brown dominated the Mexican standoff in the last scene. Adam Tynan as the patriarch of the clan played the part, thankfully, without undue sentimentality. The work now transforms itself into a powerful meditation on one’s self-conception and place in the world and the difficulties which arise when this is challenged.

The themes here are not startling and I felt at times a certain feeling of déjà vu. Nevertheless, the strength of the acting and audacity of the script makes it stand out and build on the success that new writing had in Pop Not Broth only last week. Most of the spectators on opening night appeared to be reviewers and I would love to see this play reach the wider audience it deserves.

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