Saturday, April 18, 2009


Eastern Angles at the Brentwood Theatre


photos: Mike Kwasniak

Craig Taylor's Return to Akenfield revisits the fictionalised Suffolk village of Ronald Blythe's book and Peter Hall's film.

Their two voices join those of the original interviewees, their successors and the many incomers to “the Surrey of the East”.

The set would look at home in the village halls that are this show's natural home, the telegraph poles offering a vanishing perspective.

This dramatic version, touching and funny, lets the people speak, with a minimum of intervention. There is a romantic entanglement of sorts, personifying the clash of cultures: the young Pole pruning the orchard, and the young waitress in the café.

But mostly this is about characters caught in a changing landscape. The five actors were superb in their many roles. Charlotte Thompson, for instance, fretted about Kenyan peas, and, as a very credible teen, couldn't stoop to strawberry picking. Richard Earl played a bitter publican and an optimistic entrepreneur, Robert Macpherson was excellent as the Polish worker, David Redgrave got most of the old Suffolk boys, tending the churchyard and planting sweet peas, and Sally Ann Burnett was the lady vicar, the Scottish schoolteacher, and, in an almost unbearably moving moment, the mother at her son's grave.

Death, as much else, has gone out of the village. No-one lays out the corpse in the home nowadays; the names on the gravestones are no longer the names of the families living in the houses. No Post Office, no shop. In fact a certain supermarket chain gets a rough ride; its delivery van in a  confrontation with a tractor down a narrow lane a telling image.

A character remembers the thirty-six apple varieties the orchards used to grow. Did he have our Essex D'Arcy Spice ?  The Stanway Seedling ? The Maldon Wonder ?  Or the Sturmer Pippin ?

Apples symbolise much that has happened to Suffolk. A myriad of traditional varieties have been replaced by standardised , tasteless hybrids. The Suffolk dialect is being swept away in the tide of Estuary English.

The simple sloping set, with its telegraph pole perspective, catches something of the timeless Suffolk soil.

It's forty years since Blythe's book. In another forty the changes will be complete. As the cast sings in the Jolly Ploughman: What farming shall come to there's no tongue can tell …

Ivan Cutting's sensitive production tours till early June. The Cramphorn is sold out, I believe, but you could catch it at Margaretting or in the wonderful Grange Barn at Coggeshall.

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