Reviewed – 8th February 2019
“Progress Theatre rose to the challenge and have brought us a formidable production”
Hidden amongst the houses of Reading is the self-funding theatre group, Progress Theatre. This small theatre is the oldest in Reading and their ambition in taking on Jerusalem is admirable. Directed here by John Goodman, Jez Butterworth’s play is a marathon at three hours long, with two intervals and a lot of swearing.
In walks Matt Tully as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron and from the outset it is clear that the role is in safe hands. Shaking and hungover he downs his breakfast of vodka and milk. He is soon joined by a motley collective of the youth of Flintlock Village. It is St. George’s Day and the day of the Village Fair. As the morning progresses, the story of last night’s partying starts to come back to them all. Rooster has now been barred from every pub in the village and has destroyed his television set. It is apparent that Rooster’s caravan in the woods is a convenient meeting place for the youngsters. They are given drugs and alcohol and an escape from their parents. Rooster refers to them as his rats, but it is clear that he needs to surround himself with youth to remain young. They hang on his words, with the possible exception of Ginger (Joseph Morbey), who is happy to tell Rooster that his stories are “bollocks”. Morbey’s endearing take on Ginger proficiently leads us to understand the neediness of the character. He is the butt of the group’s jokes, but as it turns out, probably the only true friend that Rooster has. Although they appear to idolise Rooster, there is an undercurrent of mockery and a sense that they are using him for their convenience.
Laurence Maguire as Lee and Rex Rayner as Davey stand out as the guffawing village boys. Lee is planning an exodus to Australia, with its sun and surf, while Davey cannot leave Wiltshire without his ears popping. You get the feeling that although Lee wants to leave, he really won’t be able to. Alison Hill as the sweet and doddery Professor is charming and comedic. John Turner as Wesley, pub landlord, speed addict and Morris Dancer is also a stand out.
Tony Travis’ set design is truly remarkable. The stage’s centrepiece is Rooster’s caravan, Waterloo surrounded by the detritus of endless parties. I am in awe of the trickery involved in getting a whole caravan through the doors.
Jerusalem is a reflection of England’s green and pleasant land and also a sorrow of the takeover of housing estates and petty officialdom. We can empathise with those living with Rooster squatting on their doorstep, but it is hard not to root for him as we see him unravel with the realisation that his life as he knows it is coming to an end. Tully’s rambling monologues take us masterfully through Rooster’s nonchalance to authority and finally to self-destruction, when it becomes clear he does not know what to do. His tall tales of Nigerians and giants symbolises that something beyond his control is coming to take what he holds dear, away from him.
Jez Butterworth has taken ordinary characters that are recognisable from our own life stories and made them extraordinary. Progress Theatre rose to the challenge and have brought us a formidable production. I’ve already booked to see it again.
Reviewed by Emma Gradwell
Photography by Aidan Moran
Progress Theatre until 16th February
Previous shows covered by this reviewer:
Reviewed – 25th June 2018
“The air is also blue with some magnificently filthy language, imbuing the evening with an irresistibly sinuous rawness”
Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ is a great swaggering blast of a play, set in the fictional Wiltshire village of Flintock on St George’s Day. Taking its title as much from William Blake’s ironic poem (‘was Jerusalem builded here among those dark, Satanic mills?’) as from its use by Parry as a patriotic hymn, Butterworth tackles head-on the idea of Englishness. He comes up with some answers that may surprise more than one regular theatregoer at Newbury’s dreamy Watermill theatre, which is nestled in bucolic woods and fields not far from those the play depicts.
At the heart of the play is the larger than life character of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, (Jasper Britton, ex-RSC) an exuberantly crowing cock-of-the-walk who has lived for decades in a semi-derelict caravan deep in the woods. He’s a spinner of the most fantastic yarns. Born by immaculate conception with a full set of teeth, a daredevil with magic blood in his veins, he’s a man made of rock who has heard the trees sing.
But this is no enchanted forest from a Midsummer Night. Byron is also a drug pusher and a drunk who has been banned from every pub for his brawling. His life is a ‘Bucolic, Alcoholic Frolic.’ Around him cluster half a dozen or so wasted, washed-up kids, half-believing his wild stories, but quick to turn on him when he’s down. A kind of mythic haze hangs over the grimy clearing where Byron’s caravan is slowly mouldering into the ground in Frankie Bradshaw’s compelling set. The air is also blue with some magnificently filthy language, imbuing the evening with an irresistibly sinuous rawness. This is an inspired production that thanks to Lisa Blair’s excellent direction seems to grow out of the very earth the Watermill theatre stands on.
As Byron, Britton has made the part his own in a way that stands apart from Mark Rylance’s much-praised interpretation at the play’s Royal Court premiere. Britton is a colossal figure, bursting with fierce energy, mired in filth but brilliant with quick wit that lights up the theatre. The same quick-fire vitality marks the performances of several of Rooster Byron’s acolytes. Peter Caulfield as Ginger is one of the ‘Lost Boys’ – gawky and wasted, never growing up, always hoping for a break that he knows in his heart will never come. As Lee, Sam Swann has a touching innocence that’s just right for the part of the kid who thinks he’s heading to a better life tomorrow. Santino Smith is funny and compelling as Davey who has never seen the point of other counties. ‘I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop.’ Richard Evans makes the professor ethereal and vulnerable, making a vivid connection with the language of enchantment in the literature and lyrics he quotes. Robert Fitch gives a raw and edgy performance as Wesley, the hopeless morris-dancing publican who’ll take a line from Rooster and then ban him from his pub. Adam Burton, Rebecca Lee, Natalie Walter and an alternating trio of child actors as Marky all make excellent contributions to this brilliant show. Dialect coach Elspeth Morrison deserves a special mention for keeping the cast (mostly) on track in a broad Wiltshire accent.
This wonderfully involving three-act play opens with Nenda Neurer as Phaedra singing ‘Jerusalem’ with a kind of sweetly knowing innocence. What follows is both a compelling story but also a brilliantly crafted meditation on what it is to be of an ancient land where continuity and chaos, truth and fiction, hope and despair are all wrapped up into an enthralling mixture.
The Watermill Theatre’s ‘Jerusalem’ continues to Saturday 21 July. Lighting by Christopher Nairne, Sound and music, Tom Attwood, Paul Benzing, fight director.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Philip Tull
Watermill Theatre until 21st July
Previously reviewed at this venue