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:
Robin Hood | ★★★★ | Watermill Theatre Newbury | December 2018
Rocky Horror Show | ★★★★ | Theatre Royal Brighton | December 2018
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