Astonishingly written in 17 days in a deckchair on Morecambe Pier, John Osbourne’s autobiographical, 61-year-old play occupies a place at the vanguard of modern British theatre, one of the first times that a working-class voice was heard in all its sound and fury on a UK stage. It is the inspiration for the phrase “angry young man” coined by the Royal Court Theatre’s press officer to promote the work. However, the world in which Osborne’s work was born, to quote another work published in the 1950s, L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between: “is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, is very different to the one we live in now.
It is easy to comprehend the shock value that young, working-class but highly educated, anti-hero, Jimmy Porter inspired venting his spleen from a dingy, down at heel, one-room flat in the Midlands (famously leaving its first audiences gasping at the sight of an ironing board on a stage). However, in Ed Robson’s production, these tirades of class rage and his particularly vicious attacks on his passive upper-middle-class wife Alison, appear to be disproportionate to the situation he’s in (running a sweet stall despite clearly having a searing intellect). The source of the anger doesn’t measure up to the level of rage on display here (ultimately he has a job, he has a roof over his head). While many believe the themes of the work have transcended the years and continue to have resonance, I beg to differ. Jimmy Porter’s world, a decade on from the second world war, with the British class system at its most acute, is incomprehensible to those living in 2017. Yes, economic and social constraints limit our opportunities today, but 1956 was a very different time.
I last saw the play 12 years ago with a pre-fame David Tennant and felt fully sympathetic to Jimmy’s railing at the world, The passage of time seems to have eroded my empathy. That’s not to say Andrew Rothney’s portrayal of Jimmy is at fault, quite the contrary, it is a tour de force and therein lies one of the problems with this production: so utterly detestable is the level of his discontent, his vitriol so bitter, the less than convincing supporting performances are thrown into sharp focus. Save for Esme Bayley as Alison’s friend and Jimmy’s mistress, they are a tad wishy-washy.
The staging too has its faults. It needs a better set to evoke a sense of time and place. Jimmy and Alison’s flat is minimally dressed, had it actually looked of the period it may have grounded the words in context. I suspect it may have been designed thus to demonstrate the themes are universal and could be played out in any era (no they can’t), either that or they have spent all their money on the rain effects that they had to cobble together the rest of the set from the back of a shed. A success though, is the multi-dimensional aspect of the set (some scenes are played at background distance) which allow welcome changes of atmosphere.
Too much time has passed and the world has changed so much, that unfortunately, Look Back in Anger is less than the working class rallying cry it once was.
Last month I had the privilege of working with the Tron Theatre on their Ambassadors programme, delivering the theatre reviewing workshop.
The Tron Ambassadors scheme gives pupils 16-18 the chance to be behind-the-scenes at a working theatre, enabling young people to make a deeper connection with the Tron Theatre itself and gain a better understanding of the performing arts industry. As well as providing participants with opportunities to take part in workshops, tasks, and interviewing and observing industry professionals, the Tron Ambassadors also learn that these new skills are transferable to any career path they choose to take when leaving school.
As part of the reviewing workshop, the Ambassadors were asked to submit a review of Rob Drummond’s Grain in the Blood. The standard of the submissions was so high that, instead of choosing a single review to be published, Glasgow Theatre Blog is publishing them all. So it’s going to be a long post, but no apologies as these young women’s critical voices represent the future of theatre reviewing.
*Please note that some reviews may contain spoilers.
Sarah Miele as Autumn Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Grain in the Blood – Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Writer: Rob Drummond
Director: Orla O’Loughlin
Reviewer: Eve Miller
Grain In The Blood, inspired by the moral dilemma of ‘The Trolley Problem’ is an unsettling take on the often asked question – how do we decide what is right or wrong? Framed against the backdrop of a rural, pagan community approaching the harvest moon, this spine-tingling performance keeps the audience on the edge of their seats throughout.
Blythe Duff gives a steady performance as the no-nonsense Sophia, a grandmother desperate to save her little girl, and John Michie is credible as the reasonable, down- to-earth Burt, however, it is Andrew Rothney’s eerie portrayal of Issac that really carries this production. Rothney’s performance, delicately conveying the nuances of emotion felt by a prisoner on a visit home faced with a weighty decision is all too convincing, and he deftly contrasts Issac’s unpredictable nature and capacity for violence with the vulnerability of a young man consumed with guilt.
Also impressive was Sarah Miele in her role as the sickly Autumn. The blunt acceptance of a young girl who has been ill for her whole life is elegantly woven into her portrayal, as is the fun and lively attributes of a child who just wants to enjoy her life. Likewise, Frances Thorburn’s performance as the bereaved aunt who hides her grief behind a facade of aggression was faultless.
The often repeated “Verses” help to create the mysterious tone which is maintained throughout, as piece by piece the unnerving pagan rituals of the harvest moon festival are revealed. Contrastingly, this darkness was balanced with just the right amount of comedy, which prevented the production from sinking into a black hole of despair.
The innovative staging includes a sliding portion which reveals a hidden section of the acting space and provides effortless scene transition, however, one too many long silences causes the performance to drag. Up until the end of the production, the plot was a bit predictable, and ever so slightly clichéd, so this may not be the show for you if you are wanting a surprise. Although predictable, the script and characters were well written and developed convincingly.
Despite these flaws, this production was haunting, and the well-crafted script was gracefully brought to life on stage by a fully capable cast, who gave a performance that was thrilling and chilling in equal measure.
Blythe Duff as Sophia Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Grain in the Blood – Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Reviewer: Zara Grew
Holding my ticket in one hand and the play in the other, I sat unaware of the raw emotions and intensity I was about to witness. The lights sat above me and projected a dim wash of yellow across the stage. The play ran for one hour and thirty minutes, without a break. I believe the lack of an interval was almost symbolic, as to portray that real life cannot be paused.
The play blended a perfect recipe of surrealism and a naturalistic performance style to convey its haunting message, through acting as well as theatre arts. The set was extremely interesting as at first glance it was a realistic cabin living room. However, the back wall of the room came apart revealing young Autumn’s bedroom. Autumn, aged 12 made her first appearance under the dining room table, shocking the audience and continuing to do so throughout the play due to her comical and constant use of curse words. Her gran Sophia was also a shocking character as she was a very hard to read individual, who would do anything to keep her granddaughter alive. The supporting characters Violet and Burt added both comedy and depth to the play, Burt provided comic relief in the performance yet also had a very human dilemma about the morality of the situations he faced. Violet created a humorous reaction from the audience at many points in the play, yet also made us feel deep sadness due to the loss of her sister and her isolation from the family she lives with. However the character I believe created the most tension and audience reaction was Isaac. The father of Autumn and son of Sophia had been let out of prison for a short period of time in order to help Autumn. Although he was a man of few words, I believe he held the play together as his actions forced the other characters to react in extreme measures.
The play was strung together by emotionally packed melodramatic stares between the characters, Autumn’s truthful, heartfelt narration and the frightening rituals of pagan culture. A final monologue by Autumn left the audience in tears and as the lights dimmed on the lives of the broken family and the small dolls house lit up on the stage, we were left affected deeply by that one hour and a half performance.
Andrew Rothney as Isaac Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Grain in the Blood – Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Reviewer: Ellie Jack
A thrilling tale built on morbid humour and questionable circumstances. Rob Drummond’s new play Grain in the Blood is jam packed with murder, illness, brooding criminals and the occasional dose of horse manure. Set on a remote Scottish farm the play depicts the lengths to which love will take us, which by the looks of it can be bloody far…
Tense from the outset, we are introduced to Sophia (Blythe Duff) a grandmother and tough talker who is desperate for her convict son Isaac (Andrew Rothney) to return home, all in the hope he can save Amber (Sarah Miele) his dying daughter. But as is life, nothing goes smoothly. With the added drama and dry humour from Aunt Violet (Frances Thorburn) and prison minder (John Michie) the eye never leaves the stage.
From the outset, the audience is given a family and specific relationships to truly invest in and characters they can root for. Though the play centres on the dying child, Burt (John Michie) could be the character who seeks the most redemption, his character progression was one thing to keep the audience engaged, as was the foul mouth of more than one strong minded female character. Violet’s strength and determination, not to mention her sharp wit was entreating throughout.
However, the authenticity was lacking from Andrew Rothney’s performance, not quite convincing the audience of a character in continuous turmoil, more reciting lines they have learned. Whilst Blythe Duff, Frances Thorburn and John Michie gave powerful, humorous and emotional performances that produced many a laugh and a gasp from the audience.
Orla O’Loughlin’s directing created a frosty environment both on and off stage, with quick movement and little one to one character contact, which helped set the mood. The basic set and sudden bright lighting contributed to the contrast of simple living with extremely complex situations. The sudden rise to hysteria was almost unbelievable and though entertaining, somewhat hard to truly believe.
Rob Drummond’s ending to a manic play was somewhat unsatisfying. Whilst it is completely acceptable to allow the audience to imagine or presume what follows after the curtain draws, these specific circumstances left one shocked but thirsty for a more concise and clear conclusion.
Grain in the Blood – Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Reviewer: Claire Lamarra
Grain in the Blood, Rob Drummond’s new play at the Tron Theatre is a moving crowd-pleaser. Bleak, with the occasional laugh thrown in to provide light relief from the intense family drama taking place on stage.
The story unfolds in the harsh Scottish countryside. A prisoner is brought to the farm of a dying girl. For the outset, it is clear that the prisoner has been brought to the farm by his mother and sister-in-law to save his daughter from kidney cancer. The play centres around ‘the verses’ (harvest folk tales) which seem a comfort to some and a source of great distress to others.
The story twists and turns throughout with a pleasing one at the end. It is not entirely unpredictable, if you have seen the movie My Sister’s Keeper (2009), but a good twist no less.
The dialogue is tight and effective. The excessive use of swearing by the 12-year-old Autumn is at first shocking and entertaining. However, by the end seems like a writing device to get cheap laughs. The intenseness and volatility of the character Isaac is clearly portrayed by Andrew Rothney. Sarah Miele’s performance settles as the play progresses. As as an audience member, a mental adjustment had to be made as the age gap between actress and character was slightly too big for it to be utterly believable. Autumn’s grandmother Sophia (Blythe Duff) is a clear cut character with strong morals and a clear view of what is right and wrong compared to Isaac’s chaperone Burt (John Michie). Burt takes persuading to come to a decision on morality or the ‘right thing to do’. Finally, Vicky played convincingly by Frances Thorburn is a wild card. She has a clear view of what she wants and is willing to do anything for the people she loves.
The countdown to Autumn’s birthday throughout the play brings a neat end to the performance despite the turmoil that is taking place outside her bedroom door. It is a moving conclusion that satisfies the audience.
Overall, ‘Grain in the blood’ is a good evening out that keeps you guessing. It is visually stimulating and a story that is tense and entertaining even if slightly melodramatic at points.
Grain in the Blood – Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Reviewer: Taylor Goodwin
Rob Drummond’s Grain In The Blood is a gripping play with mystery and humour weaved throughout. The play focuses on a troubled, secretive family facing a moral dilemma.
Little is known about the family situation in the beginning and it is all slowly revealed as the story progresses. This gives an air of mystery and makes the play worth watching. The plot (although dark as it centres around an ill, young girl) has enough humour incorporated in it to provide enough comic relief to prevent the play becoming too dark all the way through.
The most powerful part of the acting is the varied volume. In particular a scene near the end with Isaac, Burt, Sophia and Violet (played by Andrew Rothney, John Michie, Blythe Duff and Frances Thorburn) where in the middle of an argument the characters go between talking calm and quietly to shouting. The changes in volume keep the scene gripping and make the acting stand out. The acting is also very consistent and the characters come to life due to this. Autumn (played by Sarah Miele) in specific has a certain calmness all through the play making it captivating as she also deals with a serious illness. This adds layers to the character, making her interesting to watch.
The design of the play also adds to the atmosphere with few, quick set changes. All of the changes are done by the cast while music plays, which adds to the atmosphere. A scene near the end is really effective when the mist and wind surround Autumn and adds more to the dark feel of the play.
The production is thought-provoking and attention-grabbing with a mixture of comedic and serious moments. Entertaining from the beginning to the end, this play contains wonderful acting and an interesting plot making it a production that could definitely be watched again.
John Michie and Frances Thorburn Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Grain in the Blood – Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Reviewer: Eilidh Sweenie
Following an isolated family in a rural community, Grain in the Blood by Rob Drummond is captivating, unnerving and hilarious from the get go. The play itself is well written, giving the audience little snippets of information to build up a mysterious past event while maintaining a sense of intrigue and keeping you guessing throughout. With tense scenes peppered by genuinely funny moments and a small but strong cast Grain in the Blood is very enjoyable and interesting to watch.
All the Actors gave strong performances but Sarah Miele playing Autumn stole the show. The play’s central conflict revolves around Autumn – a little girl who is inquisitive, funny but secretly wise beyond her years. There was the possibility that Autumn could have come across as annoying or even boring without Miele, who played the character with honesty and depth resulting in a captivating performance that made you feel a lot of empathy for the little girl.
Andrew Rothney playing Issac also has to be mentioned. You find yourself liking Issac even though the reason he is in jail is slowly revealed to you and your opinion on him changes. The way Rothney portrays Issac lets you see things from his point of view, and therefore come to realise that he may not be completely evil but not completely good either, which is one of the main themes of the play.
Designed by Fred Meller, the set consists of one wooden room and various pieces of furniture that have a rustic feeling which reflects the rural community in which the play is set. The use of sliding doors adds a new dynamic to a relatively small performance space and allows a change of locations in a stylistic inventive way without the stage ever feeling cramped. However, the way the set was structured meant that the audience could see the actors entering and exiting the stage which was not very good as it distracted from the other actor’s performances.
While the scene transitions were seamless and very cool, sometimes they finished very abruptly as the scenes ended as soon as the characters had finished speaking and therefore the play felt rushed at some points. The lighting was used very effectively, with the lights changing to mimic the characters emotions and adding an extra layer to the whole performance.
On the whole Grain in the Blood at the Tron Theatre is an excellent show, which I would highly recommend if you enjoy stories with family drama, moral dilemmas and an air of mystery brought to you by some seriously talented actors.
Grain in the Blood – Tron Theatre, Glasgow.
Reviewer: Shona Russell
On the evening of the 25th of October, I had the pleasure to view Ross Drummond’s gripping thriller Grain in the Blood.
He lays the scene in a rural Scots village, where the pagan religion and old wives’ tales are widely believed by its inhabitants, creating an eerie and unsettling atmosphere within this backwards-thinking village. The dusky mellow lighting and spotlights, courtesy of Simon Wilkinson, aid the interchangeable farmhouse background created by Fred Meller, in creating a perplexing sense of uncertainty for what is to follow.
The story follows a released prisoner Isaac (Andrew Rothney) returning to his home village in an attempt to reconcile with his family after his treacherous actions sent him behind bars. Sophia (Blythe Duff) tries desperately to reconnect the family in order to save her granddaughter Autumn’s (Sarah Miele) life, which faces great danger without the help of Issac. Closely watched by appointed guardian Bert (John Mitchie), Issac is faced with his past and now the present, which forces him to make a life-altering decision for the greater good of the family, but not without the burden of his actions placed upon him by Violet (Frances Thorburn), who was greatly affected by Issac’s past criminal behavior.
Although the atmosphere is heavy with tension and an unsettling supernatural vibe, the script is bursting with wit, hilarity, and profanities, releasing a good deal of stress from the dark, noirish façade. It’s ill-mannered language and jokes provides lots of laughs amidst the confusion of the twisting, hard hitting plotline.
Autumn, a girl with an impressively colourful vocabulary despite her tender age, adopts a nonchalant attitude to the knowledge of her fast approaching death. She instead focuses on the countdown to her birthday, which seems oddly juxtaposed with the countdown to her inevitable death, evoking even more confusion and confliction. Her recurring plea for the pain to stop reminds us of her youth and how near her death she is, despite the jokes and profanities she often cracks. The audience is captivated by her story.
In 90 minutes, Drummond successfully creates an alternate community of isolated country folk, completely behind today’s idea of society. The audience is encapsulated by this tiny world and all its rituals and beliefs, however strange they may be. Bonds are formed between those who are essentially strangers, creating a sense of unity between five individuals who were once incredibly awkward and silent with each other.
In conclusion, Grain in the Blood requires attentive listening or else one would find themselves relatively clueless. That being said, the rewarding experience of witnessing the twist and turns of the story outweighs any negatives one could have. Although hard to get into at first, the big reveals, exquisite lighting and sets, and encapsulating performances make it a treat for the eyes, and I would highly recommend to anyone up for a thrilling experience and who are impartial to strong profanities, even from 12-year-old girls.
Grain in the Blood – Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Reviewer: Ciara O’Brien
I cannot begin to describe my sheer admiration for Rob Drummond’s Grain in the Blood.
From the first moment of stepping into the theatre I was drawn to the unusual set, very dim and monotone I was keen to find out what was going to happen and the show did not disappoint. The strong accents the characters portrayed their heritage and Scottish highland roots well. Although the character of Autumn, a 12-year-old girl was played by a much older actress, she conveyed the character well with a nonchalant attitude as she knew she was dying, not caring about the opinions of others. She walked with a hunched posture to show she was ill and talked in a slow breathy pace showing how young she is. Sophia and Violet were both similar in stylisation and mindset, showing that the both would give everything up for Autumn to survive, they demonstrated a good balance of pathos and humour which kept the audience entertained. Isaac I felt, was a hard character to believably pull off as his constant changes in mood and emotion would be challenging, however, the actor demonstrated this absolutely outstandingly, delivering a chilling performance bringing me to goosebumps. The comic relief style character, Burt, also delivered an exceedingly good performance and pulled off the “be funny without knowing your funny” with an unbelievable level of talent.
The set was carried on by the cast which I felt linked well with the theme of the family living off their own land and doing everything for themselves. The placement of Autumn under the table in scene one really added to the play as it was unexpected and really drew the attention and immersed the audience in her story. Her constant countdown to her birthday until her death really unnerved the audience. The show had a great balance of light-hearted satire and dark humour. The lights were very aesthetically pleasing, focusing in on centre stage and being naturalistic for the complete play. The sound effects played a key role in bringing the show together, the loud screeching of the violin music rising to a crescendo in the darkest moments of the play really kept the audience on their toes. The noises of the horse growing significantly sicker were quite disturbing and really played on the line “we are all animals” as the horse and Autumn we’re both dying simultaneously showing no matter what you are, we are all dust to dust. The verses were also quite unsettling due to how very dark and urban
The verses were also quite unsettling due to how very dark and urban legend-like they were. The relationships between the characters such as the love Sophia has for Isaac and Isaac has for Autumn, which is shown when he shuns himself to pursue her final wish. The strong language used could be deemed unnecessary by many however I feel that it was necessary to show how nonchalant Autumn was and also to convey anger in Isaac, Violet, and Sophia.
Finally, the most moving part of the play, in my opinion, was Autumn’s final monologue in which she reveals that she wanted the pain to end and her father to live on, and she was ready to sleep and never wake up brought me to tears. The subtle light shining on in the toy house after the stage faded to blackout was very effective in finishing the play and was a good way to convey a happy ending even though the storyline was dark. The hardest part for me was figuring out a negative comment as I could not spot any for the play was thought-provoking and entertaining from start to finish. It could be argued that the character of Violet blocked other characters on stage at a few points however, I felt as though this was a theatrical staging choice and not accidental and this comment is me really struggling to find any negatives in the play whatsoever. Overall the play was moving bringing many audience members to tears, and I recommend the show to everyone as it is universally acceptable with comedy,
Overall the play was moving bringing many audience members to tears, and I recommend the show to everyone as it is universally relatable with comedy, thrills, and drama. Although the strong themes and language would be unsuitable for younger children, the play really spoke to me, and I would happily go and see it again.
Grain in the Blood will be at The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh from 1st to 12th November 2016