Gareth Smith reviews Jennifer Lunn’s play, Terroir, a dystopian drama set in West Wales and the sixth successive collaboration between Sherman Theatre and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Terroir charts the entropic collapse of a near-future society, but its presence is ironically a sign that the world outside the play is edging back towards a sense of normality. As one of two dramas from the Sherman Cymru (along with The Merthyr Stigmatist) currently available to stream online, it is both heartening and encouraging to return to the (virtual) theatre. Laptop screens are no substitute for a seat in the auditorium, but filmed plays feel much closer to the authentic experience than those recorded over Zoom. A co-production between the Sherman and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Terroir encapsulates the enduring appeal of the theatre: the chance to explore big ideas in a small space.
The play follows a group of friends in West Wales from their exam results in 2020 to a dystopian future plagued by ecological disasters and corporate greed. While most theatrical attempts to depict teenagers are hideously embarrassing, the performances and writing combine to produce a sense of authenticity among the cast. The ambiguous relationship between Claire (Matilda Rowe) and Ffion (Nia Gandhi) is intriguing, while Osian (Stuart Quigley) and Huw (Tullio Campanal) manage to convey cocky teenage boy personas without overdoing the machismo.
There is a naivety about the friends that is engaging, but which is less charming when it seeps into the plot. The mechanism that drives the story involves two eighteen-year-olds (Callum Hymers and Madeline Pell) being bought a pub by their parents, a development which seems too contrived for the speculative realism that the play seems to be aiming for. This setting provides a fitting space for mapping a dangerous future – as the building moves perilously close to the sea with each passing decade – but it feels as though there were some missed opportunities to really explore the pub as both a community space and a symbol of its decline.
Its eventual abandonment decades later provides a suitably eerie context for tense exchanges between Rhys (Cameron Chapman) and Kyra (Bookie Schwartz) as they navigate a literal cliffhanger of suspense. The gradual drip-feeding of information to the audience about the nature of their mission is a testament to the carefully crafted dialogue of playwright Jennifer Lunn and atmospheric direction of Sara Lloyd.
The numerous chronological jumps of the narrative give the cast a chance to showcase their versatility but the results are mixed. Although the characters are still relatively young in the ‘future’ scenes – mostly in their mid-twenties and early-thirties – the dialogue and performances age them years beyond that. The decision to kit them out in dodgy fashions to signify middle age is unfortunately reminiscent of that final scene in the last Harry Potter film.
While the short run time ensures that the play retains a brisk pace, it also compresses a generational saga into a claustrophobic eighty-eight minutes. The ending seems particularly rushed, featuring some off-stage deaths that are almost comical in their brevity. The significance of the title could also have been woven more effectively into the central narrative. Terroir is the process by which the natural environment of wine produces its flavour and this idea clearly informs the ecological preoccupations of the narrative. Due to the shortened length, this interesting idea feels more like a footnote within the dialogue than the defining thematic concept that it might have been. Although it appears that Terroir needed a little more time than it was given, it is nonetheless a promising indication of what to expect when the Sherman can eventually re-open.
Find out more about Terroir on Sherman Theatre’s website.