A rotten apple staring at you from the programme and an underscore wording “a family and a way of life struggle to survive”; there is an awareness from the beginning that the evening is not going to be one of slapstick comedy. The play is set in a fictional West Country Farm but could be the Deep South with Ernest Hemingway as its author, such are its deep rooted themes of family manipulation, each character having wasted opportunities for good relationships with each other, opting for the control aspect and all none the better for it.
Neil Gwynne’s directorial expertise shines through with a deft touch and attention for detail. From a slightly wonky picture, out of sync cup placement on hooks, branches of trees painted more like blackened fingers and apples strewn across the floor, you get a real sense of the deterioration of the farm and of the lost world the family find themselves in. No real comfort is found anywhere.
The matriarch is bereft following the shock death of her husband and, as grief encompasses her, the play follows her relationship with her close family of brother, son, daughter and childhood friend in the days following. Ros Liddiard as Irene is on top form, wonderfully changing the audience perception of this controlling harridan with her earthy shocking language, at times from victim to someone needing our pity but never actually having it, such is her domination of those around her and the total immersion of herself as being the only one who really matters. By turn sly and then winsome, bringing the attention back to herself via a quaint stumble or feigned headache or tiredness, pain (the repeated idea of leaves in her stomach) always steering the picture back to her by any means. Her performance really makes you believe she is jealous of the attention the husband’s death is getting and it is her grief, her situation alone that should be assuaged by the son, not by anyone else, that matters.
She has no time for women, the daughter and the childhood friend who had been banished 3 years ago for the sin of diverting attention from son Roy. Kate Grundy-Garcia as twin sister Brenda turns from perceived villain to sympathetic heroine in a barn-storming second act, more than matching her mother’s vitriolic words and looks: the scene where she is told that she was never wanted and asked to leave was particularly moving as were her scenes with childhood friend Linda, played with equal pathos by Sarah-Jayne Wareham. The scene revealing her own particular secret was so moving and you really believed it was “last chance”, and the real flicker of worry as she asked about “children” of Brenda showed someone who understood her character nuance very well indeed.
As did Matt Avery as Roy, again coming into his own in the second act, the author deliberately writing less for the mother in the second half as an indication of power diminishing, but really too late for all of them to either salvage anything or pursue a dream. His stance and overall prominence seemed to actually make him grow taller and wiser as the play progressed, his leaving for the better future totally eclipsed by earlier private revelation for the audience that it is all for nothing.
It wasn’t all shouting, however, with a smart and intelligent performance by Eric Petterson as Irene’s brother Len. With some astute observations concerning the onset of Autumn neatly reflecting the coming revelations, you totally believed in this character denied again by his sister any other love or focus except at her bidding. His tragedy was that, unlike Roy, he didn’t realise it and played up to this mother-figure in his life, believing that was it. His ambiguous fate hinted in earlier speeches at the end is quite heart-breaking, hating the cold yet being enveloped by it literally.
Lighting and set were exceptional, the moon appearing in the second act was quite beautiful, the atmosphere so charged you quite believed digging, burying, remnants of the night before scattered before you as further hints of the soulless past and the bleak, equally soulless future as being quite real, and the design of the studio lending itself to the claustrophobia of such wasted lives.
Thoughtful, provoking and utterly absorbing, Maskers continue to perform high powered drama to a very high standard.