A story with a supernatural focus, set on the Yorkshire moors, seemed like a suitable piece for a cold and windy December evening, and the stormy sound effects in Putney Theatre Company’s production of Bracken Moor seemed very appropriate to the season.
First seen at the Tricycle in north London in 2013, the play is set in the 1930s and tells of the after-effects of the shocking death of a young child some years before. There may – or may not – be a supernatural explanation for the events portrayed, and much of the play revolves around the differing reactions of those involved to the apparent possession of a young man by the spirit of the boy who had been his childhood friend. The notion of past events affecting lives, together with the Yorkshire setting, echoes the time plays of J. B. Priestley, with their focus on guilt for past actions.
Barry Hooper set his production in the round, with the bulk of the seating at the Putney Arts Theatre screened off to provide an effective studio-like setting but with a large playing area. The simple set was enhanced by the careful choice of props and costumes, important aspects when the cast are so close to the audience. Hair-styling too was appropriate and therefore easy to overlook, but often a jarring factor in other period productions.
Jim Dixon played two characters, his doctor and mine worker, differentiated by a slight change in accent (and trousers) – it was perhaps unfortunate that an actor with a beard was cast in these two different roles, and it would have helped if he could have contrasted more when changing from one to the other. Marcia Kelson, as Vanessa Avery, looked totally at home in the period costume and was particularly effective in the scene when all are woken in the night. In the role of her husband Geoffrey, Perry Savill provided solid support.
Playing the parents whose son had died many years before, Su McLaughlin and David Jones portrayed a couple whose respectable carapace is destroyed by the revelations of the play, changing their relationship for ever. Both actors came into their own in the second act and provided a convincing and gripping portrayal of a marriage coming apart at the seams due to the discovery of the role of each in the death of their son.
The best performances of the evening came from two young actors in the cast. As the maid, Molly Sweeney was totally believable at all times, even managing the very difficult task of becoming believably hysterical on stage. This was a controlled, convincing and assured portrayal, and totally in line with the tone of the play. The same can be said of the remarkable young actor who portrayed Terence, the young man apparently taken over by the spirit of his erstwhile playmate. Acting with a maturity and intensity that belied his years, Nick Thomas was one of the main instigators of the necessary tension and fear generated by the play; this was a striking performance in every way.
Hooper’s production more than did justice to the play, and steered successfully around the hurdle of blocking for performance in the round; although audibility and diction needed attention at some points. The need to keep the cast moving in order to provide sight of them to all audience members did have the unfortunate effect of dispelling some of the tension, where more stillness would have enhanced this.
Whether the play will become a staple for amateur groups in future remains to be seen. It certainly offers some excellent opportunities for actors, but the ghost story element may be too subtle to meet the expectations of some audiences.