England

Tim Crouch
Whitechapel Art Gallery
(2009)

Production photo

Tim Crouch's follow-up to An Oak Tree is equally iconoclastic. England first appeared in Edinburgh at the Fruitmarket Gallery under the auspices of the Traverse Theatre in 2007. Since then, it has toured galleries around the world and finally makes its London debut at the newly refurbished Whitechapel Art Gallery.

Crouch and his companion, Shunt's Hannah Ringham, jointly play an unnamed character who, due to the presence of a boyfriend, is probably female but might just be gay (for the sake of simplicity, hereafter referred to as she).

During the poetic first half of the hour-long performance, the pair weave in and out of both Open, Sesame!, an exhibition by German sculptor, Isa Genzken, and a promenading audience. The exhibition fits in well with the play's concept as expressed in the title since it is architecturally based and therefore complements the text. This is then enhanced by an atmospheric, ambient soundscape from composer, Dan Jones.

Initially, the talk is primarily of art matters and a discussion about abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning gives a hint at the kind of fractured story that we can expect.

The second main topic is the country of the title, England. In a typically obscure Crouch way, we learn quite a bit of information about the Whitechapel Art Gallery and his character's views on the country at large.

As these themes build, a third is introduced, which is the relationship between our split protagonist and her boyfriend. This gradually reveals an infirmity the magnitude of which grows until we realised that unless she is lucky enough to be the recipient of a donor heart, the young woman will die.

With many long silences, movements around the space and much direct address to the audience, what may have initially seemed an abstruse text really hits home as our heroine's predicament becomes all too clear.

The promenading stops as visitors are shepherded into a colourful Zilkha Auditorium, where the acting style changes as much as the location.

Now, we are in post-operative mode where our newly restored lady has engineered a meeting with the Arab wife of 26-year-old Hassam, an accident victim who has donated his heart.

This story is also not as simple as one might imagine since, through an interpreter, the bitter widow explains that the donation was not as generous as it sounds, since it came in return for half a million something or others, which equate to a mere £8,000. Even more difficult to swallow is the news that Hassam's "accident" was actually the consequence of a terrorist outrage.

Hannah Ringham does not have the easiest job since Tim Crouch has clearly written a part for himself, and the co-directors, A. Smith and Karl James, have asked her to model her body language and vocal phrasing on his. This means that the almost permanent faint grin is seen on both faces almost simultaneously, as is the subsequent pain, although Crouch shows that a far greater effect since by then, Miss Ringham has become the eastern widow.

England is a short, moving piece that manages to mix the abstract with the deeply moving and then brings in questions about East-West cultural divisions in an absorbing hour that benefits greatly from a lovely location fresh from a £13.5m facelift.

David Chadderton reviewed this production in Salford in 2008

Reviewer: Philip Fisher