Winner of the Soho Theatre’s biennial Verity Bargate award, Pastoral is a stark look at humanity, juxtaposing surreal comedy with an unsettling darkness that lingers for a long time after the company take their bow.
A plant is growing through the carpet in Moll’s apartment. Voles are strutting out of Paperchase. It seems that nature is trying to reclaim its earth with wildly spreading weeds, fighting back against humans who have manipulated it for so long. A prevalent reminder that nature, that we find so inherently beautiful, can be destructive. Moll is told to prepare for a holiday, but soon she finds herself trapped with her two sons. A married couple are trying to evacuate as well, with their courageous 11-year-old son despite not having any food to survive.
Thomas Eccleshare’s imaginative first play has a subtle power and strength behind it throughout. Moll’s shrewd commentary on the street action below her flat window was flawlessly delivered by Anna Calder-Marshall, evoking all the laughter she could in her hilarious rant about “the fat”. Calder-Marshall played Moll skillfully and naturally, fully developing her eccentricity, without allowing her to become a caricature.
Moll finds a companion in Arthur, played by Polly Frame, whose boyish gestures and mannerisms capture the essence of childhood. However, she fails to match Calder-Marshall, allowing her performance to be slightly too exaggerated, perhaps reminiscent of pantomime, particularly in the over-the-top hunger mime accompanying an amusing tribute to doughnuts.
The audience find themselves laughing at the absurdity Pastoral shows, drawing on the apparent humour of a fully-grown man struggling to capture a tiny hedgehog. But the laughs quickly die as a more frightening tone sets in. This is mirrored in the memorable deterioration of the set, including a collapsing floor, growing tree and daffodil darts falling from the sky: a clever touch by director Steve Marmion.
The final image of Moll slow dancing and sharing a cigarette with Arthur, her young knight without shining armour, was strangely touching. Both were left abandoned by society, deemed too weak to escape. A bride-to-be appears in the auditorium fully equipped with fairy wings, tutu and personalised T-shirt, but this sight, which previously was laughed at, now instills a sense of grief as she delivers her powerful wedding speech.
Pastoral’s black comedy has such force, making the entire play incredibly sobering. As the pressure begins to mount for the starving group, they turn on their visitor: along-awaited Ocado deliveryman who suffers as the group succumb to something of a Lord of the Flies mentality. It’s easy to shrug off the act of violence at first. But once you are reminded that these six people are stuck in the flat starving to death, the question is: what would you stoop to?
Pastoral is playing at the Soho Theatre until June 8. For more information and tickets, see www.sohotheatre.com