Jez Butterworth's new play is not going to replicate the success of his last one: the barnstorming 'Jerusalem' was, after all, the defining British drama of recent times. But in its low-key way 'The River' is one of the best productions of the year, a haunting 80 minutes that again confirms the potency of Butterworth's partnership with 'Jerusalem' director Ian Rickson.
It'd be over-simplifying the play's ambiguities to call it a ghost story, but Rickson's production certainly aims to chill (if it's a coincidence it's playing over Halloween, it's a happy one).
In an isolated country cabin, on a cliff overlooking a river, a man (Dominic West) and his new girlfriend (Miranda Raison) are bickering away. He wants to go sea, trout fishing in the dark of the new moon; she isn't so sure. But they do go out, returning to the cabin separately. And the woman who comes back (Laura Donnelly) now appears to be somebody else entirely; yet the man seems not to notice.
'The River' is a swirling mist of memory, magical realism and hinted-at folklore, bound by some terrific acting and the gorgeous bucolic lyricism of Butterworth's language. What it all means will be up to your personal interpretation. But, like 'Jerusalem', 'The River' probes the relations between man and nature's wildness – one can imagine it's taking place in a colder, darker corner of the England inhabited by 'Rooster' Byron and co. And as with 'Jerusalem' its strangeness is sugared by a lot of very good jokes (most of them about fishing) and a superb performance from its lead man. West's overgrown, socially inept boy scout is awkward charm personified, yet by the end one feels frightened by him without quite being able to say why.
Staging 'The River' in the 85-seat Upstairs theatre, with only day-seats available, has been the source of some controversy. But a larger space would take a great deal of power away from Rickson's quietly intense production, and I suspect the loss of intimacy would make the script harder to swallow. None of this means the Court shouldn't try and transfer it on somewhere though. In its present state 'The River' is pure magic. A magnetically eerie, luminously beautiful psychodrama about the changes that happen in dark places.