The River review: ‘delicate subtlety’

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Forget summative panics and end of term stress. The real tragedy of this final week is that so few people managed to catch the opening night of Lion Theatre Company’s gently mesmerising take on Jez Butterworth’s The River. The effect of the play was to lull the audience with its mystery and melancholy rather than shock them to any extreme emotional reactions. Nevertheless, as the final play of the term, it carefully managed to draw you into its secluded world with delicate subtlety.

From the start, LTC managed to balance naturalism with poetic lyricism: two elements of the play which sometimes struggled to co-exist peacefully, but for the most part created a haunting atmosphere. The believable blocking and the way the characters inhabited the richly detailed set was counterbalanced with the jarring and unsettling way the action seamlessly slipped between The Man’s (Jack Whitmore) relationship with The Woman (Olivia Ballantine-Smith) and The Other Woman (Yasmin Jones).

The play was allowed to breathe, with a three minute sequence of The Man preparing fish which was both enjoyable, and a necessary way of delving deeper into the way the play uses fishing. That said, by the end of this short play, you did feel that a lot was left unsaid, and perhaps lingering longer over some of the key moments would have brought out their significance more without losing the play’s subtlety and understated quality.

All three actors easily slipped into the naturalistic rhythms of Butterworth’s language and made their characters as believable as possible. For the first part of the play, Whitmore dominated the stage, with his incredibly nuanced portrayal of a man who was by turns gentle and cruel, and he also managed to capture a greater sense of his character’s age than his co-stars. In these earlier scenes, Ballantine-Smith was a little too understated and overshadowed by Whitmore, although part of this was The Man’s more unequal relationship with The Woman than her counterpart. Jones gave Whitmore a run for his money when she entered in the second scene, although she fell very slightly short of his naturalism.

As the play drew to a close, however, Whitmore took a back seat, and his female co-stars were allowed to blossom. Ballantine-Smith emerged, for me, as the more relatable of the two women. Her fidgety awkwardness when discussing The Man’s declaration of love, and the emotional depths she plumbs when speaking of her dying father as a caught fish flopping on land, instantly captured the audience’s attention. She also managed to provoke one of the only laugh-out-loud moments of the production, with her perfect delivery of the line ‘I fucking hate fishing.’ Both women were excellent when they realised they were not the first to be taken to the cabin, and Jones in particular skilfully managed to lead The Man into a false sense of security and then take it away from him without the emotional development appearing forced or unnatural.

Whitmore still had his moments of glory though, and one of the highlights of the play was his long monologue about the first time he caught a fish. Fishing, which many of us if we’re honest perceive as frightfully dull, suddenly took on a spiritual and magical quality. Whitmore managed to communicate The Man’s passion for fishing without the passage feeling overacted, and he carried us from the action before us to the young boy’s encounter with a trout.

The real pleasure of the play, in truth, comes from the mood the cast and crew managed to create rather than any individual actor’s performance. The uneasy surreal quality slowly becomes genuinely unsettling, and when Jones emerged on stage with candles and a red dress, there was something unnervingly ritualistic about proceedings. The original score composed by Angus Macnaughton was also an excellent addition, setting the atmosphere perfectly for the most part, despite becoming inadvisably electronica in one passage. The way Whitmore managed to keep The Man sympathetic, making his lies so convincing that the audience fell for them even though they knew them to be false, was a key element in creating tension within the audience. His delivery of the speech about his uncle taking an endless line of women to the cabin and his desire not to follow in his footsteps was superb, and genuinely tragic if The Man hadn’t just made it up. There was always a disturbing possibility in this play that many of the most emotional moments were somehow faked.

In short, although this production is unlikely to bring you to tears or provoke endless laughs, its quietness and gentleness is something missing from many Durham productions, and its slow rhythms and irresistible melancholia make it the perfect antidote to our all too hectic lives.

Photograph: Lucina Ellaway-Bell

‘The River’ will run until Fri 18th Mar at the Assembly Rooms Theatre. Book your tickets here.

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