Chicken

Freddie Machin
Made by Brick
Southwark Playhouse
(2011)

Cold and smelling of damp, with trains rumbling overhead, the garbage-strewn floor with fork-lift pallets piled on one side of the acting area and a clapped out caravan 'parked' on the other - you would think this was intended to be some industrial wasteland but we are in the countryside. Not very bright sixteen-year-old Richard and his elder brother Polly, whose father died or walked out leaving them there, their mother having gone long ago, are living there on the fringes of a farm. I'm not sure where. I thought I heard both Kendal and Colchester mentioned at different times, but these may have been references to their peripatetic days if they ever had them. In this acoustic you can't pick up everything and Polly, who ought to know - he's eldest - tends to change the facts - at one time he claims to be Richard's father as well as his brother - and what really are his plans for leaving?

Chicken is a picture of a sibling relationship, a mixture of half-hidden responsibility and bullying that you can find in many families but exaggerated here as Polly taunts Richard for being rather slow. Although the younger brother sometimes sounds quite bright, when he is asked a question time ticks by as the wheels slowly turn in his unschooled head, trying to find the answer.

Polly is coarse and lazily confident, the youngster sensitive and living in a world of limited intelligence. When Annabel, the daughter of the farmer who owns the land, asks what he wants to do when he grows up he says: smoke, drive a car. She is waiting to see if she can get into university and planning a gap year but she makes a friend of Richard and he thinks that he's in love with her.

Polly seems to be living entirely opportunely; Benjamin Dilloway makes his fecklessness seem frightening and there seems a latent violence towards others. Scott Chambers's Richard suggest a wide-eyed wonder at quite simple things and an almost pathological dependence on Polly's protection while Gina Bramhill's posh-voiced Annabel, in rebellion against her mother's example, is still testing her own ideas.

The performances are strongly felt and that helps to hold the attention but, despite a fight between the boys, there is little dramatic development and, although there is a sense of two tantalising separate back stories that could be told of the two brothers and of the girl whose family are relatively new arrivals, not very much is actually revealed. The whole ends up less interesting than some of its moments.

Chicken is nicely paced in Melanie Spencer's production, lighting used to punctuate the succession of scenes, but Owen Lash's sound design of music, dawn choruses and country sounds is swamped by the trains overhead.

At first I thought the chicken was young Richard, frightened to face up to life but there is in fact a real chicken, a dead one, perhaps a symbol for the way these boys waste their lives, but the meaning of a pair of boots, hanging isolated from a wire above the audience was lost on me.

Howard Loxton