Arcola Theatre, London – until 21 March 2020
Jack Shepherd is the author of some impressive plays (including the excellent ‘In Lambeth’ – a meeting between William Blake and Thomas Paine) as well as a much-loved actor, a director and a jazz musician. He has more going on than most which is, perhaps, why The Cutting Edge is his first new play for 13 years.
It has a high calibre cast, but is unlikely to be remembered as one of his best. A middle-aged couple have left the rat race for a farm where they struggle to become self-sufficient. Their exhaustion and uncertainty is disrupted by the intrusion of a pair of ageing rebels who arrive on a motorbike, drink all the gin and generally add to the stress of preparations of a party later that evening. It sounds like a set-up for a drama of crisis and resolution but, unfortunately, not that much happens.
The problem with Shepherd’s play is a lack of focus. It is never entirely clear what the real driver really is. Several themes are aired: the naivety of moving to the country to get away from city stress; the unequal burden of looking after a partner who is depressed; women’s choice between responsibility or escape; and the indignity and emptiness of being a drop out in old age.
The play is ostensibly about art and commodification. The couple whose in whose kitchen we spend the evening, Anna and Chris, met on an art magazine. He was a high flying critic who had a breakdown when he came to see his work as empty. However, the wide-ranging speeches about modern art seem hackneyed, and leave the audience none the wiser about what really matters to Shepherd. The era the play addresses is also confusing. The action explicitly takes place in the late 1980s, but it features props that appear 21st century and there is no sense of social context to help locate individual dilemmas.
The evening is enjoyable for its cast. Maggie Steed as artist Elvira, visiting the house where she was happy as a child, now sits in front of bars rather than easels. Her version of herself is a couple of decades out of date, and Steed is fabulously fragile, a walking liability it’s hard not to love. In contrast, Jasmine Hyde is excellently long-suffering as Anna, making soup live on stage throughout the first half. She cleans up after everyone literally and emotionally, her cheerful facade is in constant danger of collapse. Michael Feast, as her biker companion Zak, is brilliantly committed and convincing – a chancer too old to get away with it any more, but still working the charm. However, despite the combined skills of its performers, ‘The Cutting Edge’ lacks pace and drive and the key moment of crisis, which always seems around the corner, never arrives.