Review by Harry Bower
The Nag’s Head really could be any pub in rural England. It is affectionately referred to as the ‘world’s worst pub’ by the three siblings left holding the keys, following the death of their father. A tale as old as time is retold in this production by Make It Beautiful Theatre Company. Kids from the country leave home, live their life in the city, only to return to their small hometown to pick up the pieces when there’s a family crisis. A cast of three multi-role in this dark comedy which takes inspiration from real paranormal accounts, in what is an energetic and highly satirical production. The question is – would last orders leave me running for the door, or sticking around for a lock-in?
It's the day of Dad’s funeral, in Shireshire. Adult-children Jack, Connor, and Sarah regroup post-wake. Exhausted and out of booze, the air of niceness has dissipated, and the three distant siblings are soon at each other’s throats. That they have drifted apart and led separate lives has limited impact on their regression to childhood, as they poke fun at and tease one another, resulting in a hugely entertaining and clever re-enactment of their imaginary court of arbitration, designed to settle disputes. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. A delivery – a naked painting of the Devil – derails the reunion, and sets in motion a series of events which will change the trio’s relationship forever…
Together, with a director from the Greene King pub chain, they embark on a journey to turn around the fortunes of their father’s dwindling pub. To do so, Sarah accepts a secret Greene King loan, and repositions the establishment as the place to go for all things haunted. The satanic painting hangs eerily above the bar, and its spooky power begins to take hold in the three siblings as they each start to display symptoms of madness. Imaginary wives, power-crazy-landlords, and dental patients back from the dead, are commonplace at The Nag’s Head after dark.
If you’ve not yet picked it up – The Nag’s Head is wacky, silly, funny, and completely irreverent. The humour ranges from subtle throwaway, to shouty and obvious in equal measure, and the show relies heavily on some well-crafted physical comedy to bolster its writing. Its core three characters are written with heart but lack the well-rounded emotional depth which would make the audience care that little bit more about their stories. Jack is the one who never got out, a small-town teacher left to look after dad when he got ill, and occasionally work in the pub – bitter at the perceived abandonment by his siblings. Connor – the one at odds with reality, sofa searching but convinced he’s still cool. Sarah the tirelessly crap entrepreneur desperate to hit the big time with one of her inventions.
The narrative is at its funniest when side characters are in-play. Russell the enthusiastic Westcountry reporter who sensationalises everything, and Dr. G. Host (see what they did there?) the ghost tour guide, are both brilliant caricatures and bring plentiful light relief. It’s because these characters are designed to lean into the wacky world of Shireshire, that they shine. The siblings are at odds with that; three seemingly normal kids in a far from normal world.
Performances are committed and enthusiastic and all three actors have mastered their comic timing throughout. Writers Felix Grainger and Gabriel Fogarty-Graveson also star as Jack and Connor respectively and are so adept at being silly that they sometimes lull the audience into a false sense of security. Both have got a mischievous glint in their eye, and a stage presence which demands focus. They are joined on stage by Cara Steele as sister Sarah, a challenging shouty role whose emotions regularly go from zero to one hundred in a split second. All three performers toe the line between caricature and overacting, and despite the evident talent, it feels as though this too regularly falls down on the wrong side.
Some brilliant music accompanies the show, by folk band Good Habits, alongside some “PRS friendly” covers. Jumpy sound effects are a too little homemade to be completely effective at spooking the audience, and the same goes for the lighting in Park90s intimate space. Direction by Alice Chambers is sharp and controlled, which helps reign in some of the more surreal action happening on-stage. The marketing material for this show invites its audience to hear tales that will “chill you to the bone”, suggesting the piece might be in some way scary. It falls short of that, though does have some suspenseful and intriguing moments.
Any sense of overambition in the writing is down to the completely bonkers plot. Grainger and Fogarty-Graveson have clearly taken inspiration from sketch shows like Little Britain in the crafting of their characters, and The Cornetto Trilogy in the blending of horror/thriller and comedy, and it works for large swathes of the piece. Subtext and satire are woven into every scene, the piece bluntly making its voice heard about independent pubs. It feels as though The Nag’s Head is a necessary story in the development of these two talented fledgling writers. It is a hugely promising and entertaining if not polished piece of theatre and makes me excited to see future work.
The Nag’s Head plays in The Park Theatre’s Park90 space until Saturday 28 October. For more information and tickets visit: https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-nags-head