Royal Court Theatre, London – until 10 March 2018
There’s something unremittingly bleak about Simon Longman’s Gundog that makes it a real challenge. It’s an impressively bold depiction of the complete decline of a way of life, the kind of rural farming that the Common Agricultural Policy hasn’t managed to reach and protect. None of the loneliness or impoverished desperation is spared in what can feel a tad like punishment by the end.
After the death of their parents, and with their grandfather’s illness and their brother’s listlessness, sisters Anna and Becky find themselves landed with the thankless task of looking after the remotest of farms in an area that can’t even sustain a local pub. The arrival of a foreigner with a nifty line in knitwear is a rare harkening of the potential of change but we’re never allowed to forget that times really are tough.
Longman spreads his play over several years, shifting around with time-jumps here and there, but the relentlessness of the abiding mood of the characters means that it has little real dramatic impact.
There are intermittent bright spots, particularly in the sparkiness of Ria Zmitrowicz’s Becky (a more deserving candidate for a Denise Gough-style breakthrough I can’t think) and Alec Secareanu’s nuanced Guy.
But in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Chloe Lamford’s design, Vicky Featherstone’s production provides too little variation of tone, especially as Longman’s storytelling resists the propulsion of forward narrative. Which is ultimately tough-going to be sure – even as good as the best, most thought-provoking moments of this play are – and making Gundog just a little bit harder to bear than it necessarily needs to be.