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Comfort Me with Apples

Nell Leyshon
Hampstead Theatre
(2005)

Peter Hamilton Dyer and Anna Calder-Marshall in Comfort Me with Apples

If Shakespeare set a scene in an orchard, you could be pretty sure that this was a metaphor for fecundity and wholesome passion. The only recent play set in an orchard that comes to mind is David Rudkin's Afore Night Comes in which the idyllic Worcestershire setting becomes a source of evil.

Nell Leyshon is of the Rudkin orchard school but on a very much smaller and quieter scale. Once you meet the mentally-challenged family around whom the play revolves, you begin to wonder whether Somerset and its agriculture is going to the dogs because of inbreeding.

Comfort Me with Apples, in a Chekhovian way, seems a simple allegory for the loss of the English country ways, as the family orchard seems certain to give way to a property development as the bank forecloses.

The play opens on the morning after Arthur, the farmer, has succumbed to a fatal heart attack. His wife, (I)rene played by Anna Calder-Marshall is acting oddly but cannot compete with her brother who has a mental age that probably does not reach double figures. Alan Williams does a wonderful job of portraying Len, a gentle giant who wants a quiet life and is unlikely to get it.

Rene's son, Roy (Peter Hamilton Dyer) has been beaten down and has sacrificed life and love to his bullying mother. His twin sister, Brenda (Helen Schlesinger) and former girlfriend Linda (Kate Lonergan) both escaped the claustrophobic farm three years before. They had clearly gone as the result of a momentous event but it is not until some after the interval that we learn of the abortion that led to their joint departure and left the whole family dangerously unhappy.

The play builds up to a series of confrontations none of which is especially dramatic. While Rene may play dumb, she is harsh and manipulative and one can only suspect that her late husband will be delighted to have made it to the peace of the grave.

By the end, mother and daughter have somewhat unexpectedly made up but, by this stage, it is far too late to do anything with the farm but sell it to the highest bidder.

The production qualities are of the very highest standard. Director Lucy Bailey ensures that what could be dry and rather dull never seems so. She is beautifully served by all five of her actors, none more so than Alan Williams.

Designer Mike Britton has created a set to remember. It combines three rooms in the farmhouse with the orchard and is heavily raked. This means that towards the end when it is finally time for some of the overflowing apples to be flung around, they roll satisfyingly towards the awful mother.

Comfort Me with Apples is reminiscent of Chekhov in its look at the helpless loss of rural independence but Miss Leyshon takes a long time to get her message across. It feels like the kind of play that might have been written 40 or 50 years ago and its main strength is in the creation of a memorable character in backward Len.

While it holds the attention throughout and showcases the creative team, there is an uncomfortable feeling that this play needs some kind of dramatic spark to change pace and accelerate it into the kind of play that will excite audiences today.

Rivka Jacobson reviewed Hampstead's 2007 revival with a different cast

Reviewer: Philip Fisher