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A CurtainUp London London Review
Comfort Me With Apples

A good year for twins, a good year for apples
---- Irene
Comfort Me With Apples
Helen Schlesinger as Brenda and Alan Williams as Len
(Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Nell Leyshon's second play is an intensely lyrical account of one family's disintegration amidst the long-term decline of traditional rural life in the West Country of England. Although a melancholy, elegiac feeling runs through the play, Leyshon suggests that change is inevitable and perhaps desirable when people cling too much to the past and refuse to look outside the narrow parameters of their homestead.

After a slowish start, with some of the dialogue reminiscent of Cold Comfort Farm, Leyshon begins to expose the domestic tensions which have simmered below the surface for years and now threaten to boil over in the home of these cider farmers in Somerset. Septuagenarian Irene (Anna Calder-Marshall) is mourning the recent loss of her husband, relying wholly on dutiful son Roy (Peter Hamilton Dyer) to fill his place, as she regards her simple-minded brother Len (Alan Williams) as incapable.

When Roy's twin sister Brenda (Helen Schlesinger), estranged from her mother for three years, turns up having heard of her father's death, we learn more about the repressive nature of family life on the farm. Brenda has seemingly escaped but is sucked back in as she tries to untie Roy from their mother's apron strings and get him back together with his ex-girlfriend Linda (Kate Lonergan), who has been squeezed out by Irene's maternal possessiveness.

Though some elements in the story -- overbearing matriarch, return of the prodigal -- are not exactly original, and the outcome not entirely surprising, the richness of the imagery in the writing and the credibility of the family dynamics outweigh any feeling of over-familiarity or predictability. The mention of local folklore and superstitions lend an almost mythic quality to the drama, with the sterility of the inward-looking relationships between the protagonists contrasting with the fruitfulness of the trees in the orchard. There is a strong sense of decay and death as the apples are left to rot on the ground.

Mike Britton's wonderfully evocative set, first showing the dilapidated farmhouse kitchen, then the autumnal orchard, is bestrewn with apples and soil, with roots visible below the stage. The feeling of claustrophobia is as pervasive as the scent of apples which fills the auditorium.

Director Lucy Bailey has drawn subtle and convincing performances from the cast. Anna Calder-Marshall's Irene is a strong yet vulnerable presence, manipulative even in her grief, using emotional blackmail but desperate for reassurance. Peter Hamilton Dyer perfectly captures Roy's sense of divided loyalties, while Helen Schlesinger's confrontational Brenda conveys both anger and hurt that Irene has neglected her while smothering her brother, and Kate Lonergan reveals Linda's sadness that her love for Roy has been cut off in its prime. Last but not least, Alan Williams gives a most touching portrait of Len, who doesn't understand everything that is going on but has a childlike instinct to try and reconcile the others.

COMFORT ME WITH APPLES Written by Nell Leyshon Directed by Lucy Bailey

With: Anna Calder-Marshall, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Kate Lonergan, Helen Schlesinger, Alan Williams
Set Design: Mike Britton
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Neil Catchpole
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes including 20 min interval
A Hampstead Theatre Swiss Cottage production, Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Reviewed by Neil Dowden based on 24th October 2005 performance )
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©Copyright 2005, Elyse Sommer.
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