As you enter the tucked-away Studio Two of the Arcola theatre there is no mistaking that – in keeping with the gusty winds that have descended on England this week – summer is now a distant memory. Fallen leaves coat the theatre’s floor in its entirety, and encased in this autumnal scene sits Harry (Jack Shepherd), on white cast iron garden furniture. Shepherd’s impeccable ability to be completely unaffected by the entering audience means that you almost miss him. It is this attention to reality, to human nature, that makes SEArED’s production of Home a captivating examination of what we consider ‘normal’.
Premiered at the Royal Court in 1970, the play, in director Amelia Sears’s own words, “examines the truth of human behavior and interaction”. It follows five individuals, apparently unrelated, who are flung into conversation by the shortage of chairs at what appears to be a public park. Harry’s sedentary opening scene is interrupted by the entrance of Jack (Paul Copley) and, in a style echoing the work of Beckett, the pair chose to cryptically avoid conversation regarding their current situation and instead reminisce over past ambitions, war memories and family rumours. It soon transpires that they are not in a public garden, but in the grounds of a mental institution of which they are residents.
As Harry and Jack work hard to dodge this revelation, in come Marjorie (Tessa Peake-Jones) and Kathleen (Linda Broughton). They are bolshie, loud and crude. More importantly, they do not avoid conversation about where they are, but instead discuss the daily mechanisms of institution life: what’s for dinner, the gossip about other residents, the agony caused by Kathleen’s shoes. The fifth member of the party, Alfred (Joseph Arkley), makes the reality that the five inhabit an asylum undeniable. From the moment Arkley enters, feelings of internal aguish and torment flood the stage.
The disparities between the five’s denial and acknowledgement of their situation epitomise the play’s interest in the ways in which we approach and cope with mental illness: whilst Harry and Jack display traditional English reservation in choosing to ignore the reality of their situation, Alfred seems to physically embody every unsaid emotion of the asylum’s 2,000 residents. We see onstage the ways in which we use human relationships as releases for our individual suffering, and as foils to our internal pain.
The result is an intensely funny, poignant and inspiring production that encourages us to address our own fragility. The simplicity of Naomi Dawson’s leafy autumn scene sets a tone that promises to focus on the organic turns life takes, a promise fantastically upheld by the five cast members, who are all perceptively flawless.
Home is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 23 November. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website. Photo by Richard Lakos.