Barrow Hill

Jane Wainwright
Snapdragon Productions
Finborough Theatre

Janet Henfrey as Kath Bilby Credit: Ben Broomfield
Janet Henfrey and Charlie Roe as Kath and Graham Bilby Credit: Ben Broomfield
Tom Spink as Boy and Avye Leventis as Girl Credit: Ben Broomfield
Cath Whitefield as Alison Bilby Credit: Ben Broomfield

What would you do if your eighty-four-year-old mother sat day and night in all weather in protest against tactless progress in front of the Methodist Barrow Hill chapel that is her solace, and keeper of the memory flame? How do you remove this indomitable woman, who has an answer to every argument? “This place will be death of yer. / Only thing what keeps me alive.”

Would you dare to tell her that you’ve taken on the contract to convert the chapel to flats? Would the fact that business is slack and jobs are scarce, that industry has moved away from Chesterfield in Derbyshire, that you’re defaulting on mortgage payments be enough of an excuse? Is this betrayal or just facing up to facts?

Family loyalties and love—the ties that bind and tear apart – and the passing of time are poignantly, wittily, lovingly considered by Jane Wainwright, herself born in Derbyshire, in this her first play. Fifty pages, just over an hour long, but what a punch she packs in her velvet fist, what a debut. Life’s accursed questions are unpacked with craft and stealthy humour.

With an efficient economical fine turn of phrase, Wainwright hits the button every time, and Janet Henfrey as plain-speaking stoical Kath Bilby, forty years a widow with just the one builder son, Graham (Charlie Roe), gives a restrained subtle understated performance that touches the heart.

Friends nearly all gone, she turns to the kindness of neighbours. And trusts that no harm will come to her. But it does, though that is skimmed over to the point of obscurity. Barrow Hill, a play that could take more development without losing its delicate tone, leaves us begging for more.

How does physical harm compare with spiritual pain? How can Kath not defend a chapel that "took your Great-Great-Grandfather and the rest a’ this town years to build... A hundred years of people's lives caught between its stones. And now these invisible men are trying to erase it till there's nowt left of any a' us." Kath clings to the past like it’s a life raft.

But the times they are a-changing. They’re always a-changing. And how hard it is to lose the aide-memoires. The Polish builder Lucasz (Mark Weinman) carries stones, not photographs, in his pockets to remind him of his wife and son.

The letting go of bricks and mortar, the clinging to mementoes—the font that Kath’s husband carved—is no easier than the letting go of people. Graham’s daughter, Alison (Cath Whitefield), who has laboured for him these eight years and still lives at home, is suffocating.

Most young people are leaving, and she needs to spread her wings, too, to ‘escape her life sentence’. But what, and how, do we pass on from generation to generation? The desire to leave a mark is strong. Life’s unfair—the human condition… impossible not to feel sympathy for them all, reflections of ourselves.

Cathy and Heathcliff, the spirits of Kath and her husband Ernest will haunt the chapel on the hill, as the Boy (Tom Spink) and the Girl (Avye Leventis) haunt the play—their young love a personal lyrical backstory to Kath’s stubborn protest. ‘Dad says that’s how you know. If you’re willin’ t’ put up wi’ all rubbish then… What? S’love.’

Director Abbey Wright, with support from Natalie Moggridge (design), Miguel Vicente (lighting), and Max Pappenheim (sound and composition), does Jane Wainwright proud in a sensitive production that is pared to the bone but speaks so eloquently of the universal through the specific.

Reviewer: Vera Liber