England

Tim Crouch
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
(2008)

Production photo

The Lowry's first ever theatrical performance in its art galleries is Tim Crouch's multi-award-winning 'play for galleries' England, which has toured the world since it premiered at Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery during the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe.

Crouch and his co-performer Hannah Ringham welcome the audience to the gallery and take them into the first room of the exhibition. The play is re-written for each venue to not only include the name of the building but also some quite detailed information about its history, construction and the exhibitions currently taking place. The two performers act as our gallery guides, but it soon appears that they are actually both speaking as the same person, and then it appears that we are now in his / her apartment in London, or in an exclusive private hospital, and that this is not about art but about someone with a life-threatening heart problem facing mortality.

All of this sounds complicated in explanation but in performance it emerges clearly from a complex, impressionistic layering of different realities as the beautifully poetic language unveils, through discussions about art and the gallery that the audience stands in, the pain of someone facing his / her own death. The words are set against an abstract soundscape created by Dan Jones, which unfortunately in the first room had to compete with staff in the coffee shop below experimenting with just how hard they could bang cups together without breaking them, but when we moved into the next room shortly afterwards it was much more effective.

All of this takes place in a couple of different rooms with the audience standing, but for act two the audience is seated in a more conventional performance configuration. Now one of the actors is the person (presumably from act one) with the heart complaint who has had a heart transplant thanks to his / her rich boyfriend, an art dealer. He / she has travelled four thousand miles to a poor country to meet the wife of the man who died to supply the replacement heart and the second actor acts as translator, although both speak in English. The brilliant theatrical trick is that we don't get an actor's impressive displays of grief but a dry relating of the woman's emotional speeches together with the reaction to the words of both parties from whichever actor is playing the translator (which changes).

The staging could not be simpler, with Crouch and Ringham simply standing still and talking in turn, occasionally moving to a different part of the room for a while or leading the audience to another room. Crouch has a way of smiling broadly at everyone that is actually quite sinister, but both actors get across quite a bit of gentle humour in the first act and some real pain and sadness in the second without any movement or displays of raw emotion. They have the confidence to leave the longest pauses at times that go far beyond the point where the audience starts to feel uncomfortable.

Crouch treads a fine line with his plays that could so easily tip over into pretentiousness but, although there were a few slightly bemused faces in this small audience as they filed out silently at the end, he manages to produce something here that contains profound comments on art, on money, on lack of understanding between rich and poor and between west and east and on death and mortality. This is a play, like his previous An Oak Tree, that has haunted me since I saw it in Edinburgh and it was very nice to be able to revisit it.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production in London in 2009

Reviewer: David Chadderton