Friday, November 27, 2015
'In Search of England' at Theatre N16, 25th November 2015
Friday, November 27, 2015 by londoncitynights
Neil D'Arcy Jones' In Search of England is an ambitious piece of writing. It attempts to define a symbolic iconography of England, travel from one to the other, fit in a love story, a handful of mini-monologues, an understanding of England's relationship with violent revolution and, finally, to divine all of our relationship with England's storied past.
All this adds up to a smartly psychological probe into what it means to 'be' English.
Our protagonist is George (Matthew John Wright) who has recently returned to England after years travelling around the world. He returns clutching a copy of H.V. Morton's classic travelogue In Search of England, determined to understand his own nationality. As the show puts it: "He was born English, his parents are English. But he's not sure whether he is any more."
This process consists of apparently aimlessly rambling up and down the country, taking on odd jobs and meeting strangers. Yet there's something else rumbling away in the background. In the first scene a detective interviews him about some suspicious acquaintances and gradually we come to sense the presence of some shadowy conspiracy that George may well be a part of - with explosive consequences.
In Search of England is an undeniably handsome production. The set consists of pages from Morton's book and various lithographs of English life dangling from the ceiling on strings. On the floor are various antique maps of urban and rural environments. The set sandwiches the action between concrete poles of meaning - anchoring it to the real world.
It's performatively impressive too. Wright's George is a mysterious stranger role leavened with an anger that we don't quite understand until the closing scenes, making a protagonist we're never sure whether to sympathise with. Playing the rest of the characters are the wonderfully chameleonic Sarah Lambie and Thomas Witcomb, who variously embody a 2nd gen Polish greasy spoon worker, a depressed homeless man, a creepy Colchester tour guide, lovelorn nurses and a confused Australian trying his best to understand Morrissey.
It's in these little character sketches that the show really shines. Witcomb in particular marks the high point of the night in a brief monologue explaining how a character ended up on the streets, working from a foundation of numbed bluntness and gradually humanising the character. Right the way through the production he switches gears with impressive speed, affecting working class directness and effete pretension at a moment's notice.
But though In Search of England is peppered with individually impressive moments, it eventually bites off more than it can chew. It revels a little too much in its own mystery - setting up complex schemes involving furtively park meetings and transferred mix-tapes that (at least as far as I could tell) don't seem to go anywhere in particular. Not exactly helping is some mild chronological scene jumbling - the show begins with a police interview, then flashes back to earlier events. Eventually we're watching flashbacks within flashbacks - which makes divining what the plot actually is a bit of headscratcher.
Perhaps all that is a symptom of the short run-time, but I sense In Search of England would benefit from having more time to explain itself. Questions asked in the first act aren't answered in the final act, and the shadowy organisation that's eventually revealed to have been running the whole thing proves to be as omnipotent as it is unexplained - a lethal combination.
I detected a note of similarity between the work of Mike Bartlett to this - especially his Earthquakes in London - which similarly gets to grips with some essential Englishness. But where Bartlett isn't afraid to lay his cards on the table (not matter how barmy they might be), playwright Neil D'Arcy Jones seems a teensy bit afraid of going full bonkers with his narrative, instead hiding behind being cryptic.
That said, for all those flaws I really enjoyed myself. I'm a huge fan of these psychological dissections of Englishness; and I detected thematic DNA from some of my favourite authors (Ackroyd, Moore, Sinclair, Self) running right through the middle of the play. In Search of England has a kernel of truth and intelligence at its core - but this production feels like a rehearsal of what it could be.
It's an entertaining, well-staged and nicely performed rehearsal - but right now it's 'merely' good. It could be excellent.
In Search of England has finished its run - but I hope it returns.