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A CurtainUp London London Review

It's an old Harrison saying. Eggs and bacon breakfast. The chickens are involved but the pigs are committed.
---- Laura

Richard Bean's new play Harvest sounds like one of those television family sagas but we know that the Royal Court would not stage anything so banal and that Mr Bean doesn't put pen to paper unless the result is witty and interesting and provocative. His plays are full of insightful social comment of the kind that seems to elude many of our other young dramatists and the themes he finds for political debate are original. In Under the Whaleback his attention was directed at the declining fishing industry, a theme he returned to in Honeymoon Suite. In Harvest it is the predicament of British pig farmers that comes under the playwright's scrutiny.

Set in Yorkshire, and sounding like a Catherine Cookson spoof, we are told that in 1875 the lord of the manor, the peculiarly named Lord Primrose Agar, under the influence of alcohol, wagered 82 acres of land that his border collie pup would outlive 94 year old Orlando Harrison, one of Agar's tenant farmers. Agar lost his bet. We join the Harrisons in 1914 when the boys William (Matthew Dunster) and Albert (Gareth Farr) would like the adventure of going to France to fight the war but mostly to meet French girls. The final scene takes place in 2005 when William Harrison is still alive, aged over 100, and has to defend his farmhouse against two young burglars. In between, Bean shows how the Harrison farming family carry on carrying on against the difficulties thrown at them by the British Government. In 1914 their horses are commandeered by the army and Will loses his legs in the war to end all wars. In 1944 their land is threatened with confiscation and Albert is accidentally shot by a woman soldier. Post war they change from mixed farming to pig farming. It is a veterinarian looking at compliance with European legislation for the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Fisheries who wreaks her own havoc. While the heirs of Primrose Agar thrive with his large acreage and connections, the Harrisons struggle. William's contemporary, Lord Agar (Dickon Tyrell) lusts not just after the Harrison acreage given away by his father but also after Laura (Siān Brooke) who is William Harrison's niece and who makes her life on the farm with her husband, German ex prisoner of war, Stefan (Jochum Ten Haaf). In true Yorkshire spirit, this family takes everything that is thrown at it.

The play is set in the same farmhouse kitchen which remains largely unchanged over the century apart from the black and white lino floor replacing the brick one. The cast are called upon to age and this is convincing, given clever use of hats, wigs and makeup. I think it works better than a change of actors who lack physical resemblance to accommodate ageing. Matthew Dunster has to age 91 years and has the difficult task of concealing his (amputated) legs in a wheelchair for most of the play but as an actor he is well up to the rigours. Maudie (Jane Hazlegrove) is loved by both brothers, marries one but loves the other. She works hard at farming, as do they all. Laura inherits her aunt's role but gives wry thanks that her daughters have been to university and are able to break away from farming.

Early in the play the flamboyant fake Primrose Agar makes a spectacular entrance. In a full length suede coat with a pony tail, bead necklaces and a pelt trimmed staff, Agar has written a book about life with the Innuit in the Arctic Circle. I liked to Paul Popplewell's arrogant commissioning officer of 1914 with his use of pucker language, words like ticketty boo. The Yorkshire spoken sounds authentic and adds colour. Richard Bean creates a fantastic diversion with the hilarious interview of Titch (Adrian Hood) a potential pigman for the Harrisons. This great hulk of a man is disarmingly frank in his answers to their questions and his eccentricity almost steals the show. William: "Why did you leave? " Titch: "Sacked us". Stefan: "And why exactly did he dismiss you?" Titch: "He caught me nicking stuff." I'm not sure that Titch exactly advances the plot of Harvest other than to convince us that pigmen are a peculiar breed and to introduce Stefan's illness and Laura's exclusion from decisions about the farm, but the comedy is superb.

This is the first play that I have seen which discusses the stranglehold that large supermarkets have on our farming industry. At approaching three hours, Harvest sprawls somewhat but the script is generously peppered with comedy and wit which makes the time seem shorter. Over the century, a family of young, innocent men longing for what they perceive to be the adventure of war transpose to isolated, old people worried for their own safety in defending their property. Nothing has really changed. The struggle is to hang on to what they have worked for and their way of life. This is their harvest.

LINK to Curtain Up's reviews of other plays by Richard Bean
Honeymoon Suite
The God Botherers
Under The Whaleback
The Mentalists

Written by Richard Bean
Directed by Wilson Milam

With: Sharon Bower, Siān Brooke, Mike Burnside, Matthew Dunster, Gareth Farr, Craig Gazey, Jane Hazlegrove, Adrian Hood, Clare Lams, Paul Popplewell, Jochum Ten Haaf, Dickon Tyrell
Design: Dick Bird
Lighting: Paul Keogan
Sound: Gareth Fry
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 1st October 2005
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th September 2005 performance at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square London SW1 (Tube: Sloane Square)
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