Originally commissioned by Nottingham Playhouse, Samson Hawkins’ acclaimed debut play presents us a heightened reality version of the (real) village of Syresham, grappling with the onslaught of the high-speed railway line HS2. Scenes alternate between ‘reality’ (designed by Lily Arnold as a bewildering, fairy-tale forest) and the annual Syresham village show, with vaudeville acts performed in front of a red curtain.
With quick pacing by director Nadia Fall, and an excellent cast, Hawkins’ play brims over with surreal laughs at the expense of everyone inside and outside Syresham, including a hallucinatory speech by retired labourer Kevin (Mark Benton) about how he’s going to miss fish-finger sandwiches slathered in Utterly Butterly when he takes his HS2 payoff and relocates to Thailand. A scene announcing the winner of the annual Syresham scarecrow competition sees the world’s worst effigy of the late Queen Elizabeth II descend from the rafters, to general audience hysterics.
The play also deals with the taboo subject of two people with disabilities falling in love, and wanting their own independence from systemic care: Harry (played by Maximilian Fairley, who has autism and hard of hearing) and Debbie (played by Faye Wiggan, who has Down’s syndrome). It’s a rarity to see actors with disabilities on stage, and the quality of the writing and the performances is provocative and challenging to audiences.
Unfortunately, the play is bloated with unnecessary exposition, repetition and clarification. And, at two and a half hours, it just feels too long. If the dialogue in every scene was halved, we would feel more respected as an audience, the jokes would come thicker and faster, and the play would leave us wanting more.
Playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East 13 April – 6 May 2023.