Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Our Father

Charlotte Keatley
Watford Palace Theatre

Chris Kelhan as Jack and Anna O'Grady as Anna
Paul Greenwood as Bill and Julia St John as Sheila
Faye Winder as the anchoress Catherine

Twenty-nine year old Anna, camping in the Peak District, was in a relationship, on their way to visit her parents with the boyfriend she was doing up a house with. Then last night they had a huge row; he's walked out on her. Now, at dawn on Midsummer Day, she looks out over a reservoir and blames herself: Why do things always go wrong? A reservoir ranger comes to check on her (camping is forbidden and the place attracts suicides). "Couples are always splitting up here," he tells her, "They come out here thinking it's romantic, the edge of the great dam. But the silence is too big for most people.... It exposes you."

Anna knows all about that. She grew up here, in the house across the water. Her grandfather built the reservoir, her father, another reservoir builder, raised the dam's height. Her mother grew up in the ancient village the dam drowned. Now, in the rainless summer, the level of the reservoir is falling. What will be exposed beneath its waters and below the surface of people's lives?

Ranger Frank (Chris Kelham) attempts a relationship with Anna (Anna O'Grady), for they seem to have things in common, especially in relationship to the land: he claims to have come "to heal it". Meanwhile Anna's stay with her parents unsettles that household. Flashbacks are triggered to episodes when Anna was a little girl, a teenager and when she was at university, revealing a background of family tensions. Going back much further, eight centuries, there is a parallel story of village girl Catherine (Faye Winter) being walled up as an anchorite in the church that is still beneath the water.

Anna's parents seem loving but there are scenes of anger and tension. We are shown things only as their daughter would have seen them at the time, which limits how much Julia St John and Paul Greenwood can create rounded characters as dad Bill and mum Sheila, the father's sudden rages seem at odds with his other behaviour. Only gradually is it possible to begin to put pieces together, though perhaps had I been a woman, especially a Catholic or Moslem woman, I might have cottoned on earlier to what the play is really about.

The subject is there in the title, but it is not the Paternoster of Christianity's great prayer. This is about the way those male dominated religions have blamed women for their own sins. It wasn't Adam's fault, it was Eve, and for too long she believed it. When the thirteenth century anchoress, retching up vipers, at last spits out the truth, we realise the parallels in the contemporary story. But is Keatley suggesting it is men alone who've been responsible for ecological disaster? Prophetically she sets her play this year, in the coming summer, with a drought stricken land too hard to absorb rain even if it comes, but she ends it with hope after dramatic disaster as her characters seem to reject everything that old paternalism along with understanding its errors.

Charlotte Keatley writes naturalistic dialogue but this is no straightforward naturalistic play. She knows how to express things in theatrical terms, as in a wrenching moment that reveals the mother's jealousy of her child and an equally touching one when daughter becomes her own mother's mother. Brigid Larmour's direction and Adam Wiltshire's impressive set handle its imaginative structure and create its physical metaphors to great effect. They create a production that is theatrically powerful but I wish that the play dug deeper into its subject, especially if, as her 800 year span she seems to suggest, she is blaming all men, though it could be taken as referring to just these three psychologically damaged women. "In silence shall be thy strength" says the priest who acts as Catherine's confessor, but this is a call for women to speak out and, though written here from a female perspective, we should all be unafraid to do that.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton