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Dangerous Liaisons in Trying Times: The English Heart

15 June 2017

The English Heart

by Matthew Campling  

Etcetera Theatre, Camden, until 2nd July

Review by Eleanor Lewis

Actors are great.   It’s probably fair to say that even now, when most people think of actors they tend not to focus on the thankless work in fringe theatre that underpins the wide and varied performing arts scene in this city that we tend to take for granted.   No-one pays great attention to the particular skills required to bring new work convincingly to life in a tiny theatre over a Camden pub on one of the hottest days of the year and after the fourth major national tragedy in three months.   The fact that actors, playwrights and producers continue to produce and perform with only the most basic facilities, is something greatly to be valued in these trying times.

Trying times, specifically Brexit, being the subject of Matthew Campling’s latest play, The English Heart.   Shortly after the 2016 Referendum, in Lincolnshire, married couple Marie and Jake sell the family farm that Marie grew up on to Andre, a mildly mysterious character back from South Africa, nursing a broken heart and developing an aversion to close relationships of any kind.   Marie and Jake don’t like talking about Brexit to the point of fingers in ears and tuneless singing whenever the subject is mentioned, but they do want to enjoy themselves … separately, with Andre.   Both begin secret sexual relationships with him and these proceed splendidly – in fact Marie hasn’t had sex this great for quite some time – until Andre begins to resent their neediness, and ultimately their liaisons are revealed.  At which point a small apocalypse occurs and husband Jake attempts to shoot himself.

613mariewantsandrejakedefendsThe analogy is clear if you want it: Britain throws in its lot with the EU and enjoys the bounty therefrom for quite a while until things begin to get a little less simple and demands and responsibilities seem to overtake the advantages.  Jake, Marie and Andre find their own solution to their European union of dangerous liaisons and the play (which, according to the press release, was being written right up to the fallout from the latest election), takes the three characters forward in possibly the only way from the impasse they find themselves in, spoilers preventing further elaboration.

This work is more than an animated metaphor though and classier than a dramatized illustration of the state we’re all now in.   The three characters and their interactions are believable and well-played by the actors, and their creator ultimately treats them with kindness.   They are weak and funny, but dignified.   Once humiliated by their failings, their strengths bring them together to rescue the situation.

Husband Jake, the most challenging of the three roles, is a boy-man struggling with his true gay identity, over-excited once he embraces it and then extremely vulnerable.  Not the easiest character journey to convey convincingly, but managed to good effect with a very efficient performance from Jake Williams.   Marie (Anya Williams) embraces the relationship with Andre behind her husband’s back but reacts with a self-righteous indignation, that she’s oblivious to, to the revelation that Andre is also pandering to her husband’s needs.  Andrew Jardine plays Andre as a morose, directionless character, cash rich but emotionally void.  All three are deluded in some way, all three draw you into their deluded worlds but make you want to forgive them.

613andremarievacuum1

The work as it was performed would have benefited greatly from just a little bit more of a suggested set, it would have brought another worthwhile dimension to the piece.  It’s clear that the possibilities for set design, or even construction, within the small confines of the Etcetera are limited, but I think there is potential for more than mainly moving chairs around.

The English Heart is funny (though it’s probably funnier on a non-press night in a more relaxed atmosphere) but there is a comforting feeling of vindication about it too.   You feel for its creator and his characters the kind of private sympathy you felt for the teacher when you were ten and your class was told off for collective misbehaviour that you were involved in, and quite enjoyed, but knew would end in tears.   Matthew Campling’s work is new to this reviewer, but I will seek out more of it.

Eleanor Lewis

June 2017

Photography by Matthew House

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From → Drama, Reviews

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