Review by Sam Waite
Progress, in all forms, is about moving forward in both ideals and the physical ways in which things are done – though as we see time and time again, not everyone is happy to let the old ways die. Samson Hawkins’ Village Idiot weaves a tale of two families in the Northamptonshire village of Syresham, and how various attempts at progress go afoul.
We have the Honeybone family, brothers Peter and Harry along with rambunctious nan Barbara, and the Mahoneys, Kevin and his kids Debbie and Liam. Peter works for HS2, the highspeed rail-line forcing Barbara out of her home, and she’s becoming increasingly vocal in her unwillingness to leave. Romance blooms between Harry and Debbie, complicated by Kevin’s insistence that she join him on his move to Thailand.
The plot threads are woven together nicely, with everyone getting an even amount of time to delve into and develop their characters. Less even is the pacing itself – the first act is twice the length of the second and has a Lord of the Rings-esque habit of reaching an impactful closing note before introducing just one more scene. Performance pieces serve as opportunities for the set to be quickly redressed, and while some (Harry’s hosting of a village awards show) help to draw us into this fictionalised Syresham, others (a drag number from “Learn to Cher”) feel unnecessary.
Joseph Langdon is particularly charming as fencing contractor Liam, both the only black man in the village and a closeted homosexual, and imbues the role with an emotional intelligence perfectly balanced with his more limited education. Also immensely watchable is Maximilin Fairley’s Harry Honeybone – Harry’s unspecified disability has Peter and Barbara often speak on his behalf, and Fairley weighs his considerable comic chops with a clear and deeply-felt frustration as Harry’s own interests and feelings are more blatantly ignored.
Fairley also has a sweet, believable chemistry with Debbie, played by Faye Wiggan. While the pairing together of the play’s two disabled characters risks feeling forced, Wiggan’s immense likability and comedic instincts make it obvious why Harry would fall for her. Wiggan also gets some of the more risqué and outright rude lines, sharing this shock value with Eileen Nicholas’ Barbara. The elderly woman takes after Catherine Tate’s infamous Nan character, brash and opinionated with insults flying left and right sold with ease by Nicholas – in a sequence where Barbara spreads secrets to turn the others against each other, it’s easy to view her as an outright villain but impossible not to laugh at her antics.
Openly gay (in London, at least) Peter is played by Philip Labey, in a solid performance let down somewhat by the inconsistency of the role. Though funny and often moving, Hawkins’ script never quite decides who is the antagonist between pro-gentrification Peter and his more openly nasty, pot-stirring grandmother. While Labey is a fine actor, it’s never clear why Liam might be attracted to, or even have been friends with, Peter.
Perhaps the most nuanced acting here comes from Mark Benton, bringing to the role of single father Kevin a tender grace alongside the requisite gruffness. His choices, though often short-sighted, are all rooted in a genuine love for his children and a want for what’s best for them. Benton makes it clear with his every move, his every syllable, that his protectiveness as a father outweighs all other emotion. Nadia Fall’s direction also seems most assured with Benton, with a real clarity to the emotional peaks and valleys of his arc.
While the play is slightly over-long and unevenly split, Fall does keep a consistent and generally enjoyable tone throughout. Whenever Hawkins’ breezy dialogue could lean towards an info-dump, Fall is on hand to keep the performances and blocking natural enough that conversations feel authentic. Meanwhile the lighting by Richard Howell and sound design by Max Pappenheim sell the idea that we are in Syresham, with sounds in the woodlands surrounding us and the lights shifting to show when we are back in the council houses or venturing into these woods.
A co-production by Ramps on the Moon, advocates for the representation and casting of deaf and disabled people in theatre, the captioning featured at every performance is a welcome addition. Keeping pace with the performers while always being visible long enough to glance between the two, the captioning screen over the stage helped me to keep up with the dialogue myself at times and will be invaluable to some theatregoers. Each performance is also somewhat relaxed, with an openness to movement and leaving throughout if needed and dedicated fully-relaxed performances during the run.
Admittedly uneven and unclear in who it wants us to root for at certain key moments, a talented cast and stunning production make this run of Village Idiot an enjoyable evening, and the efforts of Ramps on the Moon help in keeping the work accessible to all. The residents, current and former, of this version of Syresham may not always agree on industrial progress, but the positive outlook towards access matches beautifully with the ultimately accepting nature of these families.
Village Idiot plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East until May 6th.
For tickets and further information, visit https://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/village-idiot#Details_in
Photos by Marc Brenner