Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Smilin' State

Noel White
Hackney Empire Studio Theatre
(2008)

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Two figures, very still, are silhouetted against the sky in a field with broken fences and dying corn. They could have been there for ever, waiting. There's a leafless tree behind them, bent and barren. The lights go up and they still stand there, silent, looking into the distance. There is an echo here of Godot but this dungareed pair of Minnesota farmers - father Milton Huffman and son bearded Bruce - are fixed in purpose and have a direct line to their deity.

When they begin to speak it's about an over-injection of nitrogen. Could this have something to do with the hail damage they also mention? But it's good things they largely talk about: like this being the best place in the world, this State, with the nicest people, nice and clean, the best day, the best field. Why travel? Bruce once spent twenty minutes in Canada: that seemed like here, but Milton says not if you stay there. 'You've got a lot of knowledge,' says his son. 'It's called wisdom, Bruce.' Every now and then they break off for a prayer. They have a naïve charm as well as being very funny and are beautifully played by Christopher Terry and Rob Carroll.

The zany level goes up a notch with their manically prancing wife and mother (Marjorie Hayward) in a hat of melon-skin who's been swimming in the stream and they don't seem quite so harmless when talk turns to discipline and punishment. The arrival of Todd (Allen Lidkey) an old schoolmate of Bruce with a letter which Milton refuses to open and drops onto a pile of other unread letters notches things up further. This field's not theirs he says, they have to leave. They won't.

What seemed a clever piece of satire on the American bible belt begins to turn into a piece of grand guignol. I won't tell you what happens, that would spoil things, go see it for yourself. I'll just mention that Bruce gets excited watching a boar mating and that there is a sister too (Julie Rogers) who used to tell Bruce stories about flying. She liked rock and roll. 'You can't hear God with rock and roll so loud,' says mother, 'that's why I had to break her records.' She had to be punished, though both brother and mother still talk to her in a corner of the field.

Omar F.Okai's direction melds the different elements of this intriguing piece of writing into a whole which holds the audience for every one of its ninety-odd minutes. Its staging is simple and effectiv,e with design by Kate Bannister and Karl Swinyard, carefully lit (Lawrence Stromski - who manages to light a sky cloth without unwanted shadows even in this small space) and with skilful use of music by Alexander Rudd. It all comes together beautifully. No other dates have been announced, but this is too good not to be seen elsewhere.

At Hackney Empire until 21st June 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton