The Herd by Rory Kinnear – Church Hill Theatre

Written by Rory Kinnear

Artistic Direction by Fiona Main

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s a special day for two Andys. For Murray, it’s 2013 and his first Wimbledon title. For another, it’s his 21st birthday – and his adoring family have gathered with gifts, cake, balloons, and a couple of additional guests. As Andy’s mother feverishly gets things organised for her son and his career, Andy’s grandparents arrive, as to does his sister who may have some news of her own.

Everything about Threepenny Theatre’s (3-T) The Herd feels ready to spark, a birthday candle lit early, at first benign, but gradually, the candle flickers and melts; its warmth dawdles across the stalls as The Herd takes on a more sentimental family-centric drama. It’s familiar, wholly too familiar for some, as the barbs and jokes turn a little personal, but the sentimentality remains. But as the splutters and wax begin to drip, pooling at the bottom, threads entangle the narrative to pay off in conclusion. And this bubbling mess pooling beneath the surface erupts and overflows, as the melodramatic heart of Kinnear’s writing shifts from heartfelt, to heart-wrenching.

For Kinnear’s first written stage show, The Herd is a sharp and witty piece which turns a familial comedy into something personal and heartfelt. It does what few productions choose to do and opens the doors to encourage a thoroughly natural discourse surrounding not only those with disabilities but their families and the struggles and often hushed aspects and strains they have on relationships.

Perhaps best demonstrating Kinnear’s reasons for the production, growing up as the brother of a severely disabled sister, the role of Claire is undoubtedly carrying much of a personal perspective. And Rebekah Lansley, unsurprisingly, does wonders in capturing the censored silence of a family member who adores their brother, but the shaking unease of someone feeling displaced. Initially a more reserved persona, happily adhering to the plans and attempting to keep her mother sane, Lansley carries this everyday mundanity with a quiet reserve before tapping into a more intense sense of injustice and grief as emotions run high.

But it is a pair of mothers – Carol, Andy’s mother and Patricia, Carol’s mother, who encapsulate the production’s necessity for an ‘if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry’ mentality. Dorothy Johnstone, who last stole 3-T’s Enchanted April, is back to bring that deliciously savage slice of humour back, but this time with a ripple more of touching sincerity with her daughter Carol, played by artistic director Fiona Main.

Main’s undertaking of a mother who internalises the struggle of caring for a severely disabled son in addition to a daughter and two elderly parents is breathtaking. Anyone who has lived with or indeed worked within the caring sector, will immediately recognise the microcosm movements and touches within Main’s physicality. The jumps at the phone calls and texts, the sighs of relief. The weight of performance is exceptional, and by the production’s end has turned the bouncing and energetic comedic performance into a stone-faced and empathetic piece of brilliance.

A trifecta of generational relationships peruses the stage. Some successful, others emerging, and one – well, one completely deteriorated. Here enters our final character, Ian, Claire and Andy’s father and Carol’s ex-husband. Tenuously vapid, Ian is a victim wholly of his insecurity and creation – having run out on the family some years ago but appearing on the doorstop to reconnect and celebrate his son’s 21st. His presence lights an intensity in all of our female leads, taking similar, though distinctly enjoyable mirth in venting their frustrations towards the man.

And yet, the vilifying isn’t entirely solidified, rather Ian is, dare we say, understandable (but not excusable) in his fears and aggravations in relation to Andy’s health. James Dickson has the toughest task to win the audience with less stage time and starting on the back foot as the closest we have to a concentration for frustrations and pain. He does remarkably well, infusing a needed sense of drama for the final moments, and enabling Boothroyd a poignant and rather simplistically beautiful exchange with Dickson to reclaim a sense of pride and visit his son.

Where the direction of emotion is strikingly visceral, particularly in the dialogue between Lansley and Main as Claire’s frustrations bubble over as feeling displaced by her brother’s disability, the latter half of the production feels stilted in movement as much of the script comes down to dialogues and expression rather than a sense of momentum. Main does a sterling job at putting character intention first, but towards the closing moments, an injection of movement is sorely missed.

What cannot be understated is the determination of this cast to carry the show and elevate elements of Kinnear’s script, which may dip too readily into the familiarity of the text. The Herd is by all accounts a tremendous success of the source material, where elements of overly regular setups lay at the feet of Kinnear’s initial stage play, the company put on a proud show, absorbing to watch with enough gallows humour to satiate the need for something happy amidst the gloom. Their production echoes a natural discourse to parents, siblings, carers, and friends of those whose voices are often underrepresented, recognising the pain and strife endured to have them in their lives. A terrifically performed piece of wit, measure and heartache.

A Proud, Witty and Heartaching Show

The Herd by Rory Kinnear runs at Church Hill Theatre until September 17th.

Tickets for which may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Darren Coutts

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