Michael Healey’s play, The Drawer Boy, is loosely based upon real events: it tells of the summer of 1972 when a group of actors lived and worked among farmers in order to devise a play that reflected their lives. The first half of this Finborough production is strikingly ambitious – not least because the ponderous tempo and inaction meant that, for all the stunning writing, direction and (for the most part) acting, it felt every minute of an hour. Whereas few casts and fewer theatres would have the skill and reputation to be able to execute such a first half whilst retaining an audience’s attention, the second half felt far more accessibly traditional – and so more emotionally engaging and effective.
I do take my hat off to director Eleanor Rhode for grappling so hard with the quirks of the first half: the fact that basically nothing happened and that the stage was empty almost more frequently than it was populated was made a defining strength of the performance. Small inconsequential scenes put together are what this whole play is built upon. While the actors were allowed to take all the time in the world to incrementally build in tiny telling details about their characters, so the scene changes were never rushed but rather lingered over, allowing George Dennis’s wonderfully atmospheric music to resonate around the tiny auditorium. Nonetheless, when contrasted with the pacy brilliance of the second half – and considering the conspicuous absence of my neighbour post-interval – I do feel that shaving quarter of an hour off the first half’s running time would not have been detrimental to this very valid, brave, and effective approach, and that it might have made the production less potentially divisive. For to miss out on the second half would have been a travesty: from the start, it ups the tempo quite considerably as fiction provides the catalyst that recalls Angus’s memory and forces Morgan to make his confession.
The real achievement of this piece is how well a strong sense of continuity is established. Real-life versus fictional dramatisation is a theme that has been artfully threaded through the script, and Rhode and her cast negotiate this with an impressively sophisticated subtle approach. Whilst the Canadian theatrical history provides an intriguing backdrop to the production, what really imprints the message of illusion and reality most powerfully on the audience is how entirely credible Neil McCaul and John Bett’s performances are as fellow farmers. From the first moment that Bett gormlessly shuffles across the stage as Angus he enraptures, playing the role of an unobserved man with such consummate skill that I felt very strongly that to watch him murmur away to himself was to pry, uninvited, into his life. From voice to posture to every expressive gesture, he gave a startlingly truthful performance, dealing with his character’s shift into lucidity with astonishing skill. McCaul’s performance as the puffed up Morgan, stubbornly brusque as he attempts to retain control and block out the probing, inquisitive and insensitive Miles (Simon Lee Phillips), was likewise hugely commendable. Both Bett and McCaul had quite brilliant comic timing and aptitude, bringing humour into even the bleakest of moments without ever allowing it to play a defining role in the piece. Unfortunately I wasn’t wholly convinced by Lee Phillips’s performance: he lacked the versatility and stage presence to be able to adopt the farmers’ characters with the aptitude with which his character is credited. Otherwise, the verisimilitude of the whole production was incredibly professional: the couple of occasions that blood was used it was done remarkably well (especially important when actors are a mere metre away), and although the set is mostly bare, Molly Einchcomb’s props and costumes are all meticulously well chosen. All in all, The Drawer Boy is both ambitious and fresh, and shows the Finborough off at its best.
The Drawer Boy is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 14 July. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.