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Watermill Young Company - Fen

6th to 9th February 2002.

This is the NWN review.

Reality past present

'FEN', performed by the Watermill Young Company, at The Watermill, from Wednesday, February 6 to Saturday, February 9

Caryl Churchill's powerful play was devised in the early 1980s with the help of members of the Lincolnshire fens, so a tangible reality is the play's heartbeat. This fine production captured the claustrophobia of village life for those who, unlike wealthy incomers or weekenders, know the real struggle of a rural existence.

The recorded cries of rooks pierced the action with the sound of the countryside. They were a chorus, a commentary and a prop to the action; they were literally the faceless presence of the multinational corporations taking over bankrupt fenland farms for globalised agri-business; they were the ghosts of dead villagers.

The past and the present ran in parallel: in the large farms built on the backs of generations of poorly-paid farm labourers; in their children, who were born and died in poverty; in the old 'stilt people' who waded through the newly-reclaimed marshes; in fenland superstitions. Was Nell, gutsily played by Katy Sigrist, a victimised 'witch', a union agitator, or just a square peg in a round hole, but one with her head well and truly screwed on? Whichever, the cynically parochial view of her as 'mad' is one all societies use to diminish those whose prescience they fear.

Rich and poor are enmeshed in the symbiotic, semi-feudal, paternalistic nature of rural life. Frank finds it hard to live on his farm wages, yet feels loyalty to his boss, landowner Mr Tewson. He, in turn, is facing the reality that to avoid bankruptcy he must sell the farm his family have worked for three generations to a City firm, and stay on as their tenant farmer. And many of those farmers still in business have their balls well and truly clamped by the supermarkets.

Robin McGrorty and Lizzie Sigrist were superb as Frank and Val, lovers who learn the terrible lesson that 'happiness' bought at the expense of others is hollow. Desperate without her children, Val (in cheap leather jacket, too many silver rings and a strappy top - just perfect) turns to a women's born-again Christian support group. Toe-curling in its accuracy, with Alice Bernard spot-on as the middle-class group leader, many of us felt for Val as she cried out to the friend who had introduced her: "Can't you hug me without Jesus?"

The aspirations of men and women are crushed almost before they are formed. Farm worker Geoffrey (a lovely cameo by Rhys Swinburn) clings to his place at the top of a family hierarchy that is breaking down. Wives and daughters have cruelly limited horizons. Angela (Sophie Stone) takes out her own self-loathing on her abandoned niece. Val intones the play's devastating last line: "My mother wanted to be a singer. That's why she'd never sing."

I can't praise this production highly enough. A fantastic young cast, many playing several roles, produced fine ensemble work and, without exception, truthful, compelling performances.