Sunday, 20 October 2019

Modern masterpiece offers us all the fun of the Flintock Fair

Modern masterpiece offers us all the fun of the Flintock Fair

Jerusalem | Progress Theatre, Reading | Tuesday, February 5

SINCE its first performance back in 2009, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem has quickly established itself as a modern classic, so it’s exciting to see it appear on the Progress stage.

The play rises as a comic masterpiece from a welter of myth, folklore and country custom — and director John Goodman is intent on bringing the humour to the fore in this lively and colourful production.

We are transported to a spring day in a Wiltshire village. Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Matt Tully) is threatened with eviction on the orders of Kennet and Avon Council, but we soon learn from Rooster’s comic antics that he has no intention of complying.

We also hear of the disappearance of a local girl, Phaedra (Sophie Maybury). Her friends Pea (Imogen Pike) and Tanya (Natasha Hall) claim not to know where she is, but Phaedra’s stepfather Troy (Peter Cook) suspects that Rooster knows more than he is saying.

Attention to detail in the set design by Tony Travis vividly evokes Rooster’s hedonistic existence in a dilapidated caravan. There’s the clutter of a life given over to leisure — bottles, board games, a dart board. But there’s also plenty of leafy greenery, reminding us that, though Rooster is perched on the edge of a new development, he belongs to an older way of life that is rooted in the English countryside.

The character of Rooster is an enigma: do we like him, loathe him, pity him or fear him?

Matt Tully plays Rooster as possessing a fierce inner strength. He’s a hell-raising maverick, born and bred in the countryside and always ready to stand his ground — especially against the forces of officialdom.

However, many might dislike Rooster for his shabby, noisy, irresponsible lifestyle on the margins of society and outside the law.

Tully’s edgy Rooster is in many ways something of a curmudgeon. “I’m nobody’s friend,” he tells Ginger.

Well done to the whole cast, who take on Butterworth’s rich and sometimes raw language with relish and bring to life an extraordinary collection of characters and oddballs.

Laurence Maguire is engaging and believable as the would-be roamer Lee — and well matched as a comic duo with the lively and likeable Rex Rayner as Davey Dean. Alison Hill is delightful as the eccentric and visionary Professor. John Turner as Wesley, the Morris-dancing pub landlord, is wonderfully funny. Joseph Morbey as Ginger provides a deadpan foil to Rooster.

Conflict is at the heart of the play. In many ways we are attracted as an audience to Rooster’s counter-cultural stance. But he falls out with almost everyone and the clashing scenes with estranged wife Dawn (Steph Gunner-Lucas) are heartbreaking, not least because of the wrangles over small son Marky (played by brothers Dexter and Oz Kingsnorth-Page).

Jerusalem is set on St Georges Day, the day of the Flintock Fair. But the fun of the fair turns sour as Rooster is held to account from a number of directions.

What begins as a “bucolic, alcoholic frolic” turns into a searing drama of personal identity, as the beaten but unbowed Rooster continues to assert his claim to the land that bears his name — Rooster’s Wood. The final scene, in which Tully stands alone on stage to deliver Rooster’s incantatory curse, is truly memorable.

Don’t miss the chance to see this remarkable drama.

Booking until Saturday (February 16).

Susan Creed

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