First and foremost

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Rory Kinnear is a fine actor. The plaudits have piled in for his both his classical theatre work and film work alike. He has played everything from Hamlet to Iago to Bill Tanner in Skyfall to Dennis Thatcher on TV. He is versatile, accomplished and in demand. This much we know. What is yet to be established is his talent as a writer, so it was with great curiosity that I watched The Herd, his debut as a playwright, last night at the Bush Theatre, London.

The action takes place at the home of Carol, mother of son Andy, and daughter Claire, where the family is gathering to await Andy’s arrival to celebrate his 21st birthday. But this isn’t a normal 21st party, as Andy who is on his way in a taxi, has a mental age of five, needs constant care and medication and, we are told, could die at any time.

On one hand this is a play about disability, and the ripple effect through the family. Andy never arrives at the party but his presence is felt in every sentence.  Carol (Amanda Root) is stuck in a state of adrenaline, consumed by the “very boring medical stuff” that dictates the business and tone of her day. Andy’s condition is both the fuel that keeps her going and the fire that threatens to overwhelm her. Root conveys this superbly, unable to stand still, unable to sit down, her language peppered with expletives as she struggles to contain herself. As if language itself isn’t enough to express the roiling anger within her at a predicament she is powerless to change.

Claire’s (Louise Brealey) childhood was ripped away from her with the birth of her brother and subsequent abandonment of their father Ian, who left when she was 17 when the strain of Andy became too much. Brealey’s performance is wonderfully terse, her tense physicality shrieking a wounded heart. Adrian Rawlins is convincing too as Ian, who pitches up at the birthday party unwelcome after years of absence, and makes a clumsy attempt to earn back a place in his children’s life. The legacy of Andy has left Claire scarred,  “the world scares me” she confesses to her mother who tells her to “be brave” to which she responds, “ it’s not enough”. Carol movingly remarks, “Well, I’m sorry. It’s all there is.”

Redemption comes in the form of Claire’s boyfriend Mark (Adrian Bower), a plain speaking northerner, who is quietly supportive when she announces somewhat under the radar to her mother and grandparents, that she is going to have a baby. Thus she is given a chance to break away and find a future for herself.

This is also a play about the women and what fantastically strong women they are. Anna Calder-Marshall is masterly as Patricia, the grandmother, an all-seeing matriarch, who belies her deep feeling for her daughter and her family with winningly sardonic one-liners.  She arrives at the house self consciously cheery announcing, “you’ll be delighted to know the cake is here!” and when she finds out Mark lives in Brighton she exclaims, “Wonderful – where talent goes to die.”

But mostly this is a play about love and family. About how the wheels keep turning in the face of what could be a tragedy. About the small things, putting the food on the table, the icing on the cake (literally) the making of tea, (which here is almost as important as a Chekhovian samovar), about the need to keep going even when your “hair is dry and you look awful” as Patricia remarks of her daughter.

Perhaps this is an actor’s play, the relationship between the characters becoming the action rather than action itself. And possibly the dialogue could have been more economic – things suggested rather than explained – but who cares, for Kinnear writes humorously and beautifully, and his subject is explored with warmth and compassion. This is a play with a huge heart.

What the audience may not have known but I did, is that a minute before the play begun, Kinnear took his seat in the audience right beside mine. “Oh hell” I thought,  as I tentatively scribbled some opening notes in my little red book, “I’d better like this.”

I need not have worried. I did like it. And very much. What a delight it was when the cast took their final bow, to be able to turn and say,  “well done, well done”.

by Gabriella Crewe-Read

The Herd, September 13 – October 26, Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, London W12 8LJ
Tel: 0208 743 5050


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Glass Online theatre reviewer

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