To borrow and butcher one of the BBC’s most popular and longest lasting catchphrases, Nightfall is an everyday story of dysfunctional country folk.
As with all of this playwright’s work, the play takes on big issues obliquely, focusing on the problems of a small group of characters who enjoy the kind of love-hate relationships that blight all but the closest families and sometimes those as well.
Laurie Sansom directs a cast of four on a set lovingly designed by Rae Smith to depict the failing Hampshire farm occupied by a family bereft of their father figure, a recent cancer victim. In addition to a solid farmhouse and yard, an oil pipeline passes across the wide, deep stage, which thrusts out into the audience.
The 2¼-hour-long drama opens on a scene of awkward discomfort, when Sion Daniel Young in the role of Ryan decides to utilise the welding skills of his only friend, Ukweli Roach’s Pete, to open up the pipeline so that they can illegally siphon off a small quantity of the black gold to support the business and also provide little extra cash.
Barney Norris’s writing from this point onwards can feel almost like a detective story, as viewers are obliged to piece together history that is only revealed in small, obscure chunks, which take time to cohere into an explanation for the sometimes extreme behaviour of a mother, her two grown children as well as a young friend whom she supported through childhood and who subsequently became a suitor to her daughter.
The burgeoning affair between Lou, played by Ophelia Loveibond, and Pete was halted in mid-flow when, after assaulting and crippling an innocent passer-by, the youngster found himself in gaol for year.
While Lou and Pete begin to bond once again and the rather slow Ryan rejoices, the reaction from Claire Skinner as mum, Jenny is at best polite and at worst positively malicious, as she puts on a brave face but does her damnedest to keep young sweethearts apart.
After the interval, as metaphorical skeletons flood out of the farmhouse cupboard, we begin to see how every member of this family has contributed to making a mess of their shared lives and, more particularly, the way in which Jenny attempts to preserve the status quo regardless of the consequences, which inevitably leads to bitter wrangling and heartache.
On the surface, Barney Norris has written a small-scale, quirky play that might not have been an obvious choice for a large theatre run by former leading lights at the National. While the drama may be low-key, the underlying issues are intriguing, particularly as generational battles take place and viewers are left to ponder whether morality still has a place in the 21st century, if there is any future in farming or, for that matter, how ordinary youngsters can expect to make their way in a country where the economics no longer add up.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher