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Gundog review at Royal Court, London – ‘raw, bleak and humane’

Rochenda Sandall, Ria Zmitrowicz and Alec Secareanu in Gundog at Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Rochenda Sandall, Ria Zmitrowicz and Alec Secareanu in Gundog at Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Time looms large in Simon Longman’s play. The seasons change and the years roll past while the characters remain rooted in place.

Sisters Becky and Anna live on an isolated farm. Their mother and father are dead. Their brother has drifted away and their grandfather’s mind is slowly unravelling. Even the nearest pub has closed down.

Gundog is shot through with the sense of a way of life in decline. The play is crammed with broken baby lambs and ailing, ageing sheepdogs. It is a bleak watch, though it does contain – rare – moments of hope and light.

Onto the sisters’ farm comes a stranger, a foreigner, far from home, and trying to scrape a living through picking fruit and stealing metal for scrap. Though initially wary of him, they understand something of each other’s struggle and a bond forms between them. They welcome him into their world.

The narrative slides backwards and forwards in time. In the play’s middle scenes, the sisters’ father is still alive, though even in life he is an absence, a shadow. Longman, a former writer in residence at rural touring company Pentabus, has an evident affinity for the agrarian – the seasons and cycles of life, the intermingling of blood and soil.

Rochenda Sandall and Ria Zmitrowicz (both excellent) play the two sisters, one taciturn and inured to hard work, the other gobby and more inclined to dream. They are clearly comfortable with the rhythms and repetitions of Longman’s writing.

There’s similar delicacy to the performance of Alec Secareanu – recently seen in God’s Own Country – as the improbably named Guy, the outsider, while Alex Austin, as their wandering, traumatised brother, is more prone to arm-waving and shouting.

Alan Williams, as their gruff grandfather, given to retelling the same not all that funny story over and over again, is gifted the play’s most poignant scene and he brings out its beauty.

Designer Chloe Lamford has filled the stage with two huge mounds of earth and fashioned a realistic looking sheep carcass, a twisted bundle of fleece and flesh, which the sisters suspend from a meat-hook hanging from the industrial metal ceiling. Flashes of light and jarring sound effects are used indicate shifts in time. But, despite a couple of moments of genuine tension, Vicky Featherstone’s production often feels shapeless.

As in his earlier, more contained play Sparks, Longman’s writing has a woozy, dreamlike quality – it strives for a Robert Holman-like stillness and grace without always getting there.

At times the production feels unintentionally inert and the potential potency of the final image is undone by relying on an effect that doesn’t fully deliver. We are led to expect a storm but only get a few timid drips.

This is a raw, slippery play, stuffed with sadness and strangeness and loss and life, even if it comes to feel relentless by the end.

Sparks review at the Old Red Lion Theatre, London – ‘funny, dreamlike and achingly sad’

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Raw, bleak, humane, if slippery, play about land, loss and the erosion of a way of life