Barren Plots

By Georgina Brown

A vividly realised place is always a key character in Barney Norris’s work. His award-winning play, Visitors, was a love story of sorts, about an old farmer’s love affair with his Wiltshire land as well as with his wife. his promising debut novel, Five rivers met on a Wooded Plain, opens with a lyrical evocation of the Wiltshire landscape, not far from Stonehenge and Salisbury's soaring spire.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, the setting – and the set – of his new play Nightfall makes a huge impact. a rusting raised pipeline cuts across the Hampshire farmland, blighting the view from the nearby farmhouse. A clunking metaphor to underline that this is not rural bliss, but paradise lost. Behind it, as darkness deepens, the sky glitters with stars. But brighter sparks spray from the welding gun wielded by Pete, a brawny young man who is helping his mate, Ryan, to Siphon oil from the mainline. Bad certainly, but more obviously mad. that the whole place doesn’t burst into flames makes no sense.

But then, little convinces in Laurie Sansom's disappointing and sluggish production, where the words get swallowed up, and with them all subtlety or nuance, in the vast space of the Bridge Theatre. Twenty-somethings Ryan and his sister Lou are struggling to comfort their mother, Jenny (wine-tippling Claire Skinner is an unpersuasive farmer’s wife), following the death of their dad in 2016, a year better remembered for the death of David Bowie and for the Brexit this lot doubtless voted for.

In the banter, it becomes clear that Pete is Lou's ex, and that all three are haunted by a tragedy that happened in the recent past, a fight that left someone in a wheelchair, for which the wrong man went to jail.

Unfortunately, skeletons fall out of cupboards much too slowly and with far too little drama in this meandering tale. it’s as if a weak episode of the archers concerning the next generation of farmers, who didn’t inherit the same sentimental feelings about working their land, borrowed the plot from Chekhov’s Cherry orchard where the only way out of debt is by selling their inheritance to developers for new housing.

Norris’s more interesting theme is grief, and the way that it is making a manipulative, egomaniacal monster of Jenny, who clings to the place where she planted her roots when she married a man she now sees only through rose-coloured spectacles, and to her children at home. there is a play in here somewhere or, better still, a novel, but this feels like a very early, very unsatisfactory draft.

Until 26 May at The Bridge Theatre, London EC4: 0333-320 0051, www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

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