David Storey is the son of a Yorkshire miner who made an immense, yet defiantly understated, impact on British theatre with his often autobiographical plays about working class life. His real aim was to be a painter but when his father –disappointed by his decision not to go to university – refused to subsidise him, he decided to make money by playing rugby professionally and writing plays and novels on the side.
His initially unintentional literary success was marked by a series of quietly powerful works. These included ‘In Celebration’, a remarkable tale of a family gathering overshadowed by the former death of one of the sons, and ‘The Contractor’, where as part of the action, the cast puts up and takes down a marquee every night on the stage. It is interesting, therefore, that SEArED theatre company has chosen to mark his eightieth year with a production of ‘Home’ – a witty yet elusive work that wrings its elegiac humour from a series of elliptical encounters in an autumn garden.
Amelia Sears’s fine, beautifully acted production welcomes the audience directly into the garden: we sit on benches surrounded by grass and fallen leaves. John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson appeared in the first production of this play – here Jack Shepherd and Paul Copley ably take up the challenge, crisply exchanging observations on subjects ranging from the weather to war. In the gaps between their words, an image of mid-twentieth century England emerges: a banal aggregation of stories featuring characters who have suffered minor ailments, thwarted ambitions, and the kind of divertingly freakish accidents that used to make entertaining tabloid fodder. Underneath these stories, the shadow of war often rears its head – just one reminder of how normality is asserted as a defence against unspeakable horrors, the banal used to block out the profound.
When the next two characters – Marjorie and Kathleen – appear, we start to understand the precise location of the garden. As their observations veer between the lewd and the surreal, it becomes increasingly clear we are in the grounds of a mental asylum. Yet typically Storey refuses to use this for splashy dramatic effect – instead the tone continues to be one of teatime chat, filled with curtain-twitching curiosity about others and crisply upbeat reflections on events of unbearable sadness. In this way he demonstrates how normal social behaviour can be as much an aspect of madness as any of its more lurid manifestations – a flight from reality in which we are all complicit. Where that leaves us is anyone’s guess.
By Rachel Halliburton