By Richard Bean
Directed by Denis Moore
With Kate Cole, Erin Dewar, Dion Mills, David Whiteley, Simon Wood, Belle Armstrong, Craig Annis, Chris Connelly, Richard Kelly, David Rock & Carol Yelland
GREEN ROOM AWARDS Won Best Direction: Denis Moore, Won Best Production, Nomination Best Set Design
Set Design by Peter Mumford
Lighting by Stelios Karagiannis
Costumes by Cara Kushlin
Stange Managers Kim Kwa, Fiona Bowles and Jenny Amore
Harvest (23 Aug – 23 Sept, 2006) Cameron Woodhead, The Age (30/08/2006)
There’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth recently over the demise of the full-length play. If Richard Bean’s Harvest is anything to go by, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.
The original London production weighed in at over three hours. But no one was counting the minutes or yenning to run off for an early tea.
Harvest is the kind of comic banquet that will sate even the most jaded appetite, and Red Stitch has rehearsed it down to a slick two and a half, without losing a single sprig of parsley.
Set on a Yorkshire farm, the action takes place in episodes strung out over the best part of a century. It begins on the eve of World War I, with two young brothers – William (David Whiteley) and Albert (Simon Wood) – vying to be chosen for the battlefields of the Somme; and ends, with a burglary in progress, in the very same kitchen in the computer age.
It’s a comedy that creeps up on you amid darkness and drama – the backdrop of two world wars, the Depression, social, economic and technological revolution; with a foreground that takes in the gamut of familial misfortune – maiming and infertility, poverty and thwarted romance, attempted rape and accidental death.
But underneath the flesh of Bean’s family saga lies a skeleton of dry wit. The playwright, who grew up in Hull, obviously has a great affection for these salt-of-the-earth Yorkshire farmers. And as the world churns around them, as they cope with change or fail to, the only things that remain unaltered by the passage of the years are their notoriously dour demeanours and peppery humour.
While not all the acting talent is as lofty as the ambitiousness of the project, none of it is below par, and there are some outstanding performances.
David Whiteley, whose character ages 90 years, is magnificent – as convincing in the earnestness of youth as he is as a doddering centagenarian. As his mam, Carol Yelland is the essence of a country mother. (She also plucks a mean chicken.) And Chris Connelly provides a hilarious cameo as the ribald farmhand Titch.
Denis Moore’s direction is wonderfully tight, maintains a fast dramatic flow, and refrains from milking any of the jokes. In a small space, set designer Peter Mumford manages to conjure the phases of the 20th century through a detailed set – and the make-up team work wonders ageing the cast.
Harvest is the best production Red Stitch has mounted in some time. It’s a finely crafted provincial picaresque – entertaining and incredibly funny – that will have you leaving the theatre elated.
Bill Perrett, The Sunday Age Preview Magazine (3/09/2006)
Richard Bean is one of a group of playwrights who style themselves Monsterists. They advocate the creation and production of new “big” plays, not necessarily works with larger casts (although they believe big casts should be supported), but with broader sweeps of subject, theme, scope of ideas. Harvest certainly fulfils the requirements. It has a cast of a dozen, some of whom take two roles; it covers the years 1914 to 2005, including the effects of two world wars, and grand shifts in economic forces on a family farm. There is an unintended irony, however, in the current production in that the Monsterist manifesto argues in part for “the elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio ‘black box’ to the main stage”, although the play is well-suited to the limited space of this theatre as it’s entirely set in the farmhouse kitchen. Nevertheless, given two entrance/exits and complex stage traffic (including wheelchairs) this is a triumph of ingenuity for cast, crew and director Denis Moore.
David Whiteley plays William Harrison, who, at the beginning of the play, runs the mixed farm with his brother Albert (Simon Wood). Whiteley’s performance in this central role (he’s there in all the linked stories that make up the play) is characterised by his customary drily humorous delivery and impeccable timing. The brothers argue about which of them is to go to France to fight. William wins the argument, but at the cost of his legs. He quietly controls much of the play’s action thereafter from his (ultimately motorised) wheelchair. This includes waging implacable war against the splendidly named Lord Primrose Agar (Dion Mills), who is trying to retrieve land lost in a bet to a Harrison ancestor, land which becomes increasingly important as vast corporations and supermarket chains gradually engulf the production and distribution of farm yields.
Harvest chronicles romantic entanglements – both William and Albert are in love with Maudie (Belle Armstrong), who loves one and marries the other. Laura (Kate Cole), who makes her life on the farm, also has a complicated emotional life, which includes marrying Stefan (Craig Annis), a German prisoner of war.
There are compulsory governmental acquisitions, accidental and intentional killings and a house invasion.
There’s also a dedicated pig man, Titch, memorably played by Chris Connelly, whose passion for his animals makes up for his otherwise larcenous, bibulous and rather prickly character.
It’s a sprawling play, full of interest, emotional impact and entertainment, and unfailingly funny. The Red Stitch ensemble and guests play to their usual high standards.