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Ashes review at Octagon Theatre, Bolton – ‘sensitive direction’

Katy Cavanagh and Colin Connor in Ashes at Bolton Octagon. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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Apart from the non-stop talk of sperm counts and ovary tests, or watching graphic genital examinations and practical demonstrations of the sexiest positions for making babies, there are plenty of other unsettling moments in David Rudkin’s infrequently revived 1974 play, Ashes, not least the sudden jolt in Act II when a local authority adoption officer tells infertile couple Anne and Colin that “the family of tomorrow might be something different.”

It’s as if, in the early 1970s, Rudkin had sensed the coming of our brave new reconstructed world of IVF, test tube babies, commercial surrogacy and abortion on demand.

Since then, medical technologies may have altered the physical nature of conception and changed cultural perceptions of parenthood, but David Thacker’s sensitive production shows that the play has aged well despite the reference to the carnage of Bloody Sunday killing off tribal family loyalties, the numerous failed attempts by Anne and Colin to achieve their dream child combined with Rudkin’s quasi-philosophical wordiness and obvious symbolism (a foul boiled egg triggering Anne’s miscarriage for example, or Colin’s bisexuality possibly disqualifying his manliness) still retaining the power to challenge assumptions about the urge to create offspring.

A clinical all-white set and sharp lighting surround the messiness of Anne and Colin’s struggle in a suitably antiseptic aura, with the chemistry of Katy Cavanagh and Colin Connor’s consistently compelling, heartfelt performances turning the barren couple into two ever-hopeful human beings caught between the joy of sex freed from reproduction and the resentful misery of generating sperm that doesn’t count.

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Two strong central performances and sensitive direction breathe new life into a rarely seen play