Jane Wainwright’s Barrow Hill is a decent play from a promising young writer, although there’s plenty of problems with this production – dodgy accents and tepid directing being the prime culprits. However, there is the ghost of a good play here. At the Finborough Theatre.
Set in Chesterfield, we see 86-year-old Kath fighting against the demolition scheduled for her local Methodist chapel. The discovery that her son, Graham, is to be doing the rebuilding work forces her to go on a hunger strike, while her grand-daughter Alison is fighting demons of her own, and echoes of the past show why the chapel is so important to her.
From the blurb, I was quite excited about this piece: as a good old family crisis, embodied in a tangible object, with smaller subplots and memories of the past it sounded quite riveting. However, I found myself quietly disappointed. It’s not that Barrow Hill’s necessarily a bad play: it does what it says on the tin, but in a surprisingly banal fashion. The conflict between Kath and Graham pootles along without much tension, and it feels like there’s a grand central argument that’s still waiting to happen. The stakes aren’t particularly high, to borrow a scriptwriting phrase, and thus the piece doesn’t really engage powerfully or evocatively.
I’d put this down to the writing mostly, but there are some big production problems here that really hamper enjoyment. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the direction is dull – there’s no passion, energy or drive to the lines. Consquently, the show meanders instead of driving to the heart of the matter, and ends up being more of a damp squib than a firecracker on too many occasions. Janet Henfrey is endearing as Kath, and strikes a nice balance between decrepit and feisty, but Charlie Roe’s Graham just mumbles and grumbles his way through. There are nice moments from Cath Whitefield and Mark Weinmann as Alison and Lucasz, but only Tom Spink and Avye Leventis really bring much exuberance to the stage as the young boy and girl from Kath’s memory. They’re also the only two who have managed to grasp a Derbyshire accent, with the others gallivanting all over the country – a particularly poor job there too.
Running alongside Cornelius, Barrow Hill is a bit restricted in terms of set, thus the selection of crumbling pallets and iron bars do go a long way to pad out the production. However, this does feel less like an abandoned church and more like a rush job – at no point more poignantly than when someone kicks the stone outcropping that is clearly made of polystyrene!
However, the play’s still quite pleasant – for all its meandering along without much drive, it does have a nice sense of heart, although it really needed either a little more melodrama or more bite. I can’t really forgive underused characters (such as horrendous cultural stereotype Lucasz), and this really needed something that tied it all together credibly, but it’s not a terrible piece – it’s just not particularly remarkable either.