Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Our Big Land, Ovalhouse

Review: Our Big Land, Ovalhouse

Published in Time Out, 21.02.2014

Local kids call her Oceania the Witch. If that seems like plain prejudice at first, it looks a lot more reasonable an hour later, after this Romany traveller has ritually covered her daughter-in-law in blood, hogtied a voodoo doll and laid down an old gypsy curse.

But writer Dan Allum – himself a Romany traveller – makes you realise that none of this is primitive or hokum to those on stage. To the wild-eyed, husky Oceania (Robyn Moore) it’s straightforward faith, held as strongly and justly as others do Holy Communion or food laws.

One of theatre’s strengths is its ability to unravel otherness and seed empathy. It can humanise the apparently alien and that’s exactly what happens here.

Yet, these pagan trappings – of blood and earth and sorcery – still carry an unnerving, visceral charge onstage. They’re never entirely understandable to (most of) us. A superb design – Takis’s sticks-and-soil set, James Fortune’s piercing sound, Lee Curran’s moonlight and searchbeam lighting – cultivates a strong, dangerous atmosphere, while traditional Romany songs only up the authenticity.

However, Allum’s plot isn’t robust enough to support such trappings and it veers close to a showcase – and a fetishistic one at that – of Romany customs. A ‘gorger’ (non-gypsy) teenager Sophie (Scarlett Brookes) marries into the family and undertakes a few rituals, while her husband (a superb, taut Samuel Edward-Cook) hunts game, until the bulldozers start to move in. Fine, but all this needs fleshing out, so that we see full-blown characters, not representative stick-figures. We need to know what makes Oceania and her family unique among gypsies. Why tell their story? More patience and Our Big Land is there.

Photograph: Alex Beckett

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