On being told that White Open Spaces was inspired by a provocative press release from Trevor Phillips, chair of England's Commission for Racial Equality — claiming that there was a "passive apartheid" in the English countryside — you might suspect you are in for an evening of polemic, of heavy-hand rhetoric, and the message overwhelming the dramatic moment.
But you'd be wrong. The results demonstrate that when Pentabus Theatre gathered together seven writers in the hills of Ludlow to develop seven monologues, someone was keeping a very strong focus on telling of stories, on presenting drama. And the fact that the political point only peeks in around the edges of these character's lives makes its presence far more powerful than a direct rant would be.
So in "Joy's Prayer", by Ian Marchant, we meet the said Joy (Janice Connolly) — the down-trodden, used-to-be-"in service" cleaner in a country church. (It says a lot for the class of this production – Theresa Heskins' direction and the acting – that when the lights came up in this scene I thought of the church cleaners I met in Muncaster church before even a word was spoken.)
Joy – addressing the kindly God that is her sole consolation for a hard life – reveals her family circumstances slowly, indirectly. They've meant she's been mistreated, looked down upon all her life in the village where she was born, and where she will die. Yet when the issue of race finally enters her tale, how will she react? It is far from clear, and a beautiful little piece of dramatic tension.
Connolly does an excellent job with Joy, as she does with her other piece here – the role of Janey in Kata Miller's powerfully feminist "Letting Yourself Go". Janey's an abused wife, abandoned by her daughter who's fled to the big city and doesn't understand why her mother doesn't just quit the husband she’s made her life's work. Yet Janey has absorbed the thoughtless racism of those around her — delivering lines that produced sharp intakes of breath from the audience. This wounded animal finally lashes out at the stranger in her town — the odd one out. And yet there's more to come, as her fundamental humanity emerges from her angry pain.
As you'd expect from such an ensemble effort there is some uneveness among the seven pieces. The least dramatically successful is Rommi Smith’s "Mountain Knows Me", in which Godfrey Jackman struggles to extract a coherent performance from a confused old man mourning his dead wife and his fast-disappearing world. Nonetheless, the old man's ranting about the invasion of the incomers, broader issues about social change, about commercialisation of the countryside, about its citification, help to frame the other pieces.
Definitely the funniest monologue, although they all have strong doses of humour, is Richard Rai O'Neill's "The Management Reserve the Right". Graham (Habib Nasib Nader) is the small man raised too high — the new country pub licencee using the company handbook as his bible, a text to which he adheres as sternly as any evangelical. But what will he do when the travellers, the "gypos", as the locals call them, arrive in search of a drink? There's nothing in the book about that.
Sonali Bhattacharyya's "Two Men in the Fog" is the only piece that addresses the issues swirling around in the immediate political agenda. Saraj Chaundhry's Ashish is an angry, confused young man who's come out into the country to find himself and make some sense of his marriage breakup. But can a young British Asian man do that, today? Will his motives be misunderstood on a foggy day on the moor?
Heskins' introduction to the printed script of White Open Spaces describes how it was created over a week (it has since been further workshopped and performed in Edinburgh) in which a group of writers, actors, and radio dramatists were brought together in South Shropshire, experiencing everything from cattle sales to pagan priestesses, and finally gathering, snowed in, to polish their scripts. On this evidence, it is an experiment well worth repeating, to produce fine drama, and drama that explores issues without leaning on all of the obvious old tropes.
There's no simple answer here to the Phillips challenge — no cut and dried, committee-agreed conclusion. But from these range of strongly drawn characters it emerges that people are people everywhere. Some do good things, some do bad. Some good people do bad things, some bad people good things. There's prejudice here in the countryside, but not "apartheid".
White Open Spaces continues at the Soho Theatre until October 14. (With online booking.)