Pastoral, Soho Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

We’re all familiar with the terrifying threat posed against our planet by global warming, but what if it was nature that turned on us for a change? Thomas Eccleshare’s Verity Bargate Award-winning ‘first play‘ imagines just this, offering a madcap mix of mythology, nostalgia and post-apocalyptic narrative tropes. His motley group of protagonists, anchored by the excellent Anna Calder-Marshall as good-humouredly grumbling old spinster Moll, face not nuclear holocaust or zombie apocalypse, but the creeping invasion of grass and trees. Nature, it would seem, is rebelling, thrusting roots through concrete and branches through windows. Saplings are sprouting up in Paperchase and there are deer on the loose in Aldi.

This is catastrophe played firmly for laughs – Day of the Triffids reimagined as a sitcom. As the escape route planned by Moll’s young protectors Manz and Hardy is rapidly cut off, the trio are soon joined by a fleeing family, establishing the confined and somewhat ridiculous conditions conducive to quick-fire comedy. The running gag of flora and fauna taking over the local high street seems at first to promise some cutting comment on fiercely branded consumer culture, but instead it’s just an excuse to make spiky quips using familiar chains. While the long-awaited Ocado man – a late capitalist Godot – is a beautifully witty touch, the laughs can’t quite escape the feeling of being at the expense of ideas. Eccleshare has hit on a promising concept but rapidly submerged it in humour.

This black comedy all plays out in the precarious space of Moll’s flat, which Michael Vale’s skeletal metal design renders immediately open to the plant life that later wrestles its way in. Despite the momentary alarm engendered by the progressively collapsing room, however, there is little peril evident in this environment, even if it does involve some scene-stealing foliage. A creaking tree – not aided on press night by technical difficulties – provides about as much menace as birdsong, its swooping canopy more comical than threatening. While we’re often told about the encroaching danger of nature’s seemingly unstoppable onward march, the danger is never seen, only reported.

Eccleshare also leaves us in the dark as to the cause of this environmental anomaly, a decision that opens the way for interpretation but leaves questions hanging frustratingly in the air. Is the sudden overgrowth to be understood as a punishment for humanity’s thoughtless neglect and abuse of its natural environment? And does the play’s newly green and pleasant land herald a return to a golden age of natural harmony? This is certainly implied by the wistful hints of mythology, encapsulated in the youthful hope of Polly Frame’s bolshy yet faithful Arthur, an eleven-year-old boy with an ancient king as his namesake. Yet such intriguing suggestions still feel slightly underdeveloped, tangled in the swiftly growing branches.

As the play concludes with an outpouring of tongue-in-cheek sentimentality, its attempted archness looks remarkably like maudlin slush, a fate from which it’s just about saved by the simple tenderness of Calder-Marshall’s and Frame’s performances. There’s no denying Pastoral’s appealing ambition and often joyous eccentricity, but in the end it’s all too content to settle for a neat emotional pay-off over genuine complexity.

Photo: Simon Kane

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