Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Herd, Bush Theatre

Review: The Herd, Bush Theatre

How quick we are to judge. Blame years of conditioning at the Royal Court, but the merest sniff of ungainly bourgeois behaviour onstage makes me bristle. Rory Kinnear’s debut starts with Carol bustling about her decorous living while on the phone to her disabled son’s carer. It’s clear he has little English. She mocks his malapropisms and he, in turn, tests her patience. If they don’t leave now, they’re going to be late. Think about the traffic. Have you got all his pills? Could you list them? Oh, just let me speak to Jackie. Has he got all the pills? Have they left yet? Is Andy alright?

Jesus. Carol’s a woman who has off-loaded her own son onto others – possibly onto the state, the economics are left unclear. Even if we deem that perfectly acceptable, then she could at least treat his care workers – whose jobs are doubtless far from cushty – with a trace of decency and gratitude. Instead they seem only to inconvenience her. God forbid Andy’s nutritionist be allowed a family life of her own. Her daughter scoffs snidely as well, a trait she’s clearly absorbed from her mother over the years. What awful, blinkered human beings. Talk about unchecked privilege.

The skill of Kinnear’s play is that it gradually scuppers and sinks that first reaction. It admits the complexity of their situation and allows you a deeper understanding of these people and their pasts. These habits form like sedimentary rock, built up over decades of constant pressure and emotional currents. It feels all too convenient to say it, but this is an actor’s play; one that entirely sympathises with its every character, without excusing them. It is a play of blurred lines, one in which people are constantly pulled in two directions, sometimes by split allegiances, sometimes by heart and head, sometimes – at the most simple level – by a lasagne and a doorbell.

Today is Andy’s 21st birthday. He wasn’t expected to live beyond nineteen. He has the mental age of a 10 year old, uses a nebulizer and takes a list of drugs that reads that like a pharmacist’s final exam. So even if the celebrations might not entirely compute, even if it’s more for others than him, even if it’s just a lasagne with close family, today is a big, big day. It could easily be his last.

The whole family’s turned up: grandparents, Brian and Patricia, daughter Claire (Louise Brealey) and her previously unmentioned boyfriend, Mark – a performance poet, Northern, sore thumb – oh, and estranged, unforgiven and uninvited father Ian (Adrian Rawlins). The result is a room ripe with rifts and resentments, but with enough familiarity to let rip; a perfect family drama, in other words. Each of them has lived the tug-of-war between freedom and fate and each has a better view of others than of themselves. Ian might be able to justify his behaviour to himself, but he can’t in front of his family. Claire can kid herself about sacrifices, but not next to her mother.

In this respect, Kinnear’s play is precision calibrated, even if you sometimes spot the calculations. He ensures we see all the right show-downs in the right order. Sometimes that requires a little just-nipping-out-for-a-moment business, but sometimes there’s an extra dimension of tension. Claire, for example, must vent at her dad, while Mark stares at his shoes.

Ultimately, though, this is a play forged in white heat. It shows one head-on collision after another, until everyone sits around nursing bashed heads. Kinnear wants a different ending though – a proper resolution – and grabs one that, though certainly within the stretch of possibility, feels like low-hanging fruit, as does his shoehorning of a Shakespeare’s Quality of Mercy speech.

Still, an actors’ play in the hands of a cast to walk through fire for (credit casting directors Gemma Hancock & Sam Stevenson), directed by Howard ‘Detail’ Davies on a wraparound Helen Goddard set that feels like being ringside – hell, that’s enough to throw off any reservations. In Amanda Root and Anna Calder Marshall (dry as her gin-heavy G&T), it has two very different phone-book performers and, as mother and daughter, each catches a slight edge of the other; Adrian Bower is as soft and sweet-hearted as any Northern soul and, as their characters tentatively warm to one another, Kenneth Cranham vibrates on the exact same frequency.

Photograph: Mark Douet

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