Ivy Tiller, Vicar’s Daughter, Squirrel Killer and O Island! – RSC Other Place, Stratford
AN ALMOST matching pair of new works brings the vexed issue of belonging and entitlement to the Other Place stage.
At 90 minutes apiece and featuring many elements of shared staging, cast and purpose, this is a double assault of the political and moral split which has troubled the nation in the lead up to Brexit and in the times that have followed.
Who belongs here and who doesn’t, let alone what, if anything, we should actually do about it underpin these brash bursts of theatricality which take very slightly differing routes to arrive at a very similar location.
We’re in Devon to meet Ivy Tiller, but it’s a Devon born of the current wave of Bristol TV sitcoms. The fictional village which is the setting for a cull of grey squirrels in favour of the putatively more deserving red variety, is a village almost exclusively populated by comedy tropes.
Think Dibley via Dad’s Army and Detectorists and you’ll have the quasi-military squirrel patrol, the eccentrically harmless village committee, the bluff squire and so on. It’s a world of lollipop ladies and primary school governors.
In this world lives Ivy – driven, edgy, borderline obsessive but sharply funny. In the hands of sitcom star Jenny Rainsford this is a performance which more than makes up for any weaknesses elsewhere. Top notch comedy writing from Bea Roberts and a biting delivery make for some memorable moments and director Caitlin McLeod gives the whole a kind of summer outdoor touring show feel which suits well.
Ivy’s fate, like that of the squirrels, acts as a metaphor for something, but if there is a real message in this romp it doesn’t make it past Shepton Mallet.
In o Island! Nina Segal swaps squirrels for villagers unexpectedly turned into islanders by a theatrically convenient flood. We’re somewhere outside the M25 although the scattergun accents offer no clue. Again the village is home to familiar shortcut types – a comedy Welshman, a nervous teenager, a put-upon young mother, a crazed and self-obsessed politician.
As the waters continue to cut this piece of little England off from what we are invited to suppose is the entirely rational, enlightened remainder of the nation, the village goes a bit Lord of the Flies as violence follows denial, restriction follows entitlement.
A comic portrayal once more saves the day, this time a truly larger than life glory-seeking MP played to the absolute maximum by Alex Bhat.
As the comedy runs out, the play makes a crunching U-turn in an effort to be a serious statement on where division has left us but by then the damage has been done and it’s slapstick waders and bonkers duck pageants we’ll remember.
If you only see one then the squirrels with the sharper delivery and clearer vision gets the vote. But you could get an equally dark comic slant on immigration from ninety seconds of Frankie Boyle rather than the ninety-minute strolls on offer here.
Both writers opt to set the action in middle class middle England anywhere but London in the hands of radio play characters. Neither treats what is undoubtedly one of the greatest tests of our modern identity as a nation with anything approaching depth. The RSC is to be congratulated on continuing to champion the cause of new writing, but in bringing our understanding of the wounding schism of immigration to a position reached by musicians, poets and stand-up comics two years ago, this is not the cutting edge.
Visit www.rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.