Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review: 'The Moor' at The Old Red Lion, 13th February 2018

The Moor reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

The best line in Catherine Lucie's The Moor comes early on. Heroine Bronagh (Jill McAusland) is describing the titular moor that surrounds her isolated West Yorkshire home: "It's rained all week. And the peat has risen. When the peat is high, the rocks disappear. They reappear gradually, as it gets drier, like teeth growing out of gums". It's a hell of an image, transforming the landscape into something organic, hungry and subtly terrifying.

The Moor is set in an isolated West Yorkshire community in which grandmothers tell stories of 'little people' who inhabit the moors - and warn their grandchildren not to get on the wrong side of them. Within this is Bronagh, who has just given birth, whose mother has just died and who is stuck with Graeme (Oliver Britten) an abusive, overbearing and jealous boyfriend. Her life is, as they say, a bit shit right now.

The first act neatly sets out her domestic situation, with Graeme returning drunk from a party and angrily accusing Bronagh of flirting with another man. She denies everything and slinks off to bed. The next day she awakes to see that the man she was flirting with has gone missing - and Graeme is suddenly acting very suspiciously...

It's a decent mystery and were the play concerned with straightforwardly working through it could easily sustain an hour of drama. Unfortunately, this whodunit creaks under the weight of heavy-handed symbolism and thematic elements that it ultimately cannot support. 

Lucie's focus quickly switches from narrative meat and potatoes to intangibles like *deep breath* the psychological effects of physical and emotional isolation, a cocktail of post-natal depression and grief, the collective British folk memory, the elasticity of memory, the symbolic nature of dreams, overt and institutional misogyny, discrimination against travellers and the effects of alcoholism. 

Every one of those elements is potentially fertile dramatic material, but all at once, on top of a murder mystery? It's a recipe for unfocused drama, one in which what's actually happening to the characters is too far down the list of priorities. 

Worse, the sense that the plot is a secondary concern leads to a bunch of dissonant elements: would there really be a TV news story or a police search for a male traveller who has gone missing for one night - especially as he's already on the run? Would the police really be so blase about a potential key witness to a murder they're trying to solve? I generally hate this kind of nitpicking, but here it's the most obvious symptom of an undercooked narrative.

It's a pity, because otherwise this is a faultless production. Oliver Britten is a powerful and intimidating physical presence as Graeme - deploying a frankly terrifying wide-eyed stare. Jonny Magnanti also is effective as a brusque yet paternal police officer. Jill McAusland is seriously eye-catching though, managing to be fragile and impossibly strong while keeping the character consistent (often within the same scene!). 

The cast (aided by some nice stage design) almost crowbar this unwieldy play into shape. But there's only so much they can do. Catherine Lucie has a nice ear for dialogue and atmosphere and, above all, is clearly a playwright with a lot to say - I just wish she'd decide what it was.

The Moor is at The Old Red Lion until March 3rd. Tickets here.

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