Whey Down South

Alex Robins and Sam Parker

narwhal/ensemble

The Lab, Theatre Royal Plymouth

From 12 July 2017 to 15 July 2017

Review by Karen Bussell

It may be very very cheesy but narwhal/ensemble’s snappily-titled Whey Down South (The Rise Then Fall Then Rise then Fall Of The Little Curdlington Cheese Rolling) is a fresh, fun 80 or so minutes.

Devised (and gently pasteurised) by the resident company and written by Alex Robins and Sam Parker, WDS is all about the fictional southern village of Little Curdlington: its heritage, farming, single police dog and the ups and downs of the long-held annual cheese-rolling competition—the third best day on the calendar after birthdays and Christmas.

(Cheese)stringing dairy jokes and live music, pathos, action and comedy together in a grate whole of many parts which matures after a somewhat staccato start, Whey Down South is a brie-lliant (OK I’ll stop now) debut for the seven young actors undertaking Theatre Royal Plymouth’s year-long training programme supporting the development of early career artists and practitioners.

Jenny (a bouncy Chelsea Vincent) is back from the bright but empty lights of London to save the day in the name of Clive Coles: father, husband and roller. Old school friend Warren (a melancholic, doleful-eyed Parker) is selling his farmland—and most importantly the shaky bones steep hillside—for housing, so bringing to an end the ‘fricking quaint’ race.

But there is more to the seeming greed and opt-out of the farmer’s son, steeped in family dairy herd heritage passed from one generation to another (beautifully illustrated by liquid being poured from one glass to another, effervescing as childhood memories are relived and slowly draining as time passes) as farming goes all out of fashion. His Welsh dresser is falling apart, the price of milk is falling and he is well and truly aboard the 2133 to isolation, loneliness and despair.

As the protagonists clash over the department of Cheddar, Camembert and Community Services’ Heritage Act decision, greater-crested newts and swans, a multitude of villagers—including gamey and intense but crumbles easily Simon; tart, spreads easily and usually accompanied by wine Hetty; earthy, sweet and green-rinded Rachel and extra mature, blue-veined Mrs Groves—turns out to help or hinder with Helen Bovey, Robins, Daisy Higman, John Archer and Roxane Boulbin on point with multiple roles, myriad instruments and excellent timing.

The poignant backstory is soundtracked with haunting wineglass rim whining, accomplished players Higman and Archer’s excellent musical arrangements are apposite and, with Boulbin’s effective lighting design, shift the mood and scene from pub to hillside, farm to church.

Exploring friendship and the place of tradition in the modern world, exploitation and health and safety constraints on ye olde customs, Operation Cheese Eagle resists the processed, packaged, plastic PR and whizzy ads and Dave (short maturation and slightly nutty) wins the day with his homegrown social media feed while the building angst is finally fought out in delightful slo mo complete with dust and blood.

There is nowhere else to find moustache-wearing Edam or battling crisp packets, irreverent folk-singing and boundless energy so worth an hour or so of anyone’s time. Just get there early as the front row of the dingy, bum-numbing flat seating Lab is key to be able to see the minutiae of a carefully honed piece which showcases great promise.