Land of Our Fathers Writer: Chris Urch
Director: Paul Robinson
Trafalgar Studios 2, London
‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope’ – Margaret Thatcher, Downing Street, May 1979
‘We don’t make music for the man in the street. I’ve met the man in the street, and he’s a cunt’ – Sid Vicious, Hyde Park, Summer 1978
‘People round here, stay round here. It’s what we do’ – Curly
May 1979. The cusp of a new decade. The prelude to war. In New York, a man masquerading as a bass player has recently breathed his last; a victim of a heroin overdose whilst out on bail on a charge of murder. In London, a woman masquerading as a unifying and redeeming force prepares to assume the reins of power and initiate her plan of attack. Meanwhile, in the valleys of South Wales, six men, spanning three generations, lay trapped in a deep-lying mineshaft, the consequence of a devastating electrical explosion. Their predicament exists in apparent isolation of both of these events, yet the towering cultural icons of Thatcher and the Sex Pistols exist as immovable spectres within the agonising constraints of their underground imprisonment; the socio-political chaos at ground level echoing the personal and private turmoil below it.
Outside, on the streets of London, the unforgiving modern world goes about its superficial digital business with brazen impunity, yet within the limits of the Trafalgar Studios measures have been taken to ensure that things remain resolutely ‘1979’. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, ‘Gangsters’, ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’; the seemingly timeless alt-pop masterpieces of the era drift out of the brightly-lit bar, purposefully escorting us into a calculatingly confined basement setting of unremitting darkness. The sheer visceral impact of Chris Urch’s Land of Our Fathers is underpinned by Signe Beckmann’s startlingly immersive set design, a resolutely unromantic presentation of an often savagely bleak working environment. The temporarily lowered ceiling of this cramped studio theatre, its carpets and walls of jet black coal, and the fug-like representation of toxic dust, all conspire to create an unsettling and jarring sense of incarceration; a disquieting and oppressive backdrop so profoundly affecting that when Taylor Jay-Davies’s Chewy asks: ‘What mother wants to see her boy down a mine?’ it is hard to make a case to the contrary.
The life of a miner is not one for Chewy. Barely out of school and already exasperated by the limited horizons of his peers, he yearns to abandon the aspirational shackles of his tightly-bound community; to move to the seemingly exotic climes of Hounslow, to attend art school. ‘I’m not proud to be a miner!’ he exclaims at one point in a heretic exclamation of cultural dissidence. Jay-Davies’s character acts as the counterpoint to his burly elder brother, Kyle Rees’s Curly; a childhood protégé and intellectual powerhouse who has nonetheless spurned the notion of ever entertaining ideas above his supposed station. The apparent embodiment of the macho Welsh stereotype, Urch expertly drip-feeds the deconstruction of Curly’s emotional make-up, his pointed bawdy references to ‘getting a bit of fanny’ masking a disarray of male insecurity and indeterminate sexual orientation. Though Curly pronounces the likely election of ‘the Nazi in pearls’ Margaret Thatcher as a ‘catastrophe’, Urch does well not to labour the point; a considered approach that circumvents the drowning of the multi-layered portrayal of these characters in a didactic sludge of joyless agit-prop. Curly’s innocently naïve proclamation that ‘it’ll be Ted Heath all over again’ is far more impactful within this context and acts as a purposeful misreading of the severity of the oncoming storm. His joyfully eager organisation of his colleagues into a close harmony performance of the Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ providing a comic glimpse of his latent potential, positioned, as it is, as one of the last instances of the hope that Act One represents; a sense of optimism that passes with the demise of one of its principle players, a generational changing of the guard, a lucky escape.
Back-stories abound within the framework of Act Two (despair), a series of increasingly desolate revelations that can occasionally feel unrelenting, and which sporadically provide the production’s only absence of authenticity. These are minor criticisms however and, given the calibre of performance that director Paul Robinson has inspired from this exemplary cast, should not detract from the potent intensity at its core; an unforgiving exploration of male pride and the disintegration of friendships and solidarity as the suffocating grip of hopelessness takes hold. Within this impossible environment the exceptional newcomer Joshua Price (Mostyn) – in many ways the play’s moral compass, despite his character’s tender years – acts as the unexpected backbone of the piece, dragging the group away from a shocking act of desperate barbarism, his hitherto ‘mummy’s boy’ façade masking a steely self-sufficiency that puts his elder paper tiger of a Deputy (Patrick Brennan’s eternally compromised ‘Chopper’) to shame. These are not flawless characters, regardless of the desperation of their situation. Urch refuses to perpetuate a sense of unblemished ‘dignity of labour’ hubris, an honourable approach that even an impromptu rendition of Julie Andrews’ ‘My Favourite Things’ cannot mask; a lightness of touch that feels increasingly more incongruous as the play’s early tragi-comic set-pieces give way to an incremental sense of impending doom.
Land Of Our Fathers is a ‘big play’ in both its aspiration and its impact; and clocking in at two and a half hours, its length too. It embodies a return to the theatre of edgy ambition and slow-burn intensity. Moreover, its opening in the same week as the feel-good miners’ strike phenomenon Pride (a film that also features Kyle Rees) exemplifies the rich seam of cultural inheritance that the nation’s dormant mining industry still invokes; its totemic place in the national psyche resolutely undiminished.
It’s in the blood.
Banner photograph Kyle Rees as Curly in Land of Our Fathers Photographer: Flavia Fraser-Canon