Chris Dunkley’s intense and tragic two-hander Smallholding explores how, no matter where you find yourself, old habits always die hard. Indeed, when Jen (Matti Houghton) and Andy (Chris New) relocate to a cottage in Northamptonshire, they hope their rural surroundings might help them bury their past, so that they can live clean in the country air. However, soon their big plans to grow parsnips, sell their produce to supermarkets, and reclaim custody of their daughter are eclipsed by Andy’s lies, erratic behaviour and eventual relapse. Over the course of a fast-moving 70 minutes, we witness the couple spiral out of control, as each pushes the other further into the clutches of addiction and despair.
Soho Theatre’s intimate Soho Upstairs space provides the perfect setting for this claustrophobic piece, with the audience watching from every side as the couple haplessly descends into crisis. David Kidd’s lighting design successfully bolsters this effect, introducing undertones of menace into this seemingly inoffensive country setting, complemented by Rob Jones’s quirky sound design, creating an unsettling tone for the work that is sustained throughout.
Patrick Sandford’s confident direction ensures that the storytelling is clear and fluid, as the audience comes to learn about Jen and Andy’s hopes, failings and darker natures. Unfortunately, Sandford’s commendable efforts cannot always camouflage the exposition-heavy moments within Dunkley’s script, nor compensate for what is ultimately quite a predictable story. Moreover, the play’s form, unwittingly mirroring its content, lapses towards the end due to the language of its staging. While Sandford has the actors participate in partially lit scene-changes throughout the play, it is at the crucial climactic point that the rules of the on-stage world become confused, and the turning point of the piece is undermined as we segue into the equally unsatisfying final scene.
Of course, Smallholding is incredibly relevant and well-timed, given recent headlines regarding high profile figures and their abuse of heroin. Furthermore, Houghton and New offer valiant performances that highlight the grey areas surrounding the topic, such as the often-overlooked fact that abusers are more often victims than criminals. Again though, the cast are fighting against a form that sees the drama hinge on incremental revelations, often resulting in the tension being undermined overall, and the nuance of the subject matter lost. As such, Smallholding feels as though it does not shed any new light on a topic that so desperately needs examining and addressing on the stage and beyond.
Smallholding is playing at the Soho Theatre until 9 March. For more information and tickets, see Soho Theatre website.