Playwright Jez Butterworth is best known for his Royal Court/West End triumph,
The River is beautiful, swift and gripping, but it never quite makes it to the sea.
A man takes his girlfriend to his cabin for a vacation and fishing. But, in the second scene, a different actress takes the stage and resumes the story. Questions arise: why are there two actresses playing the same part? Are they playing the same part? If not, what does that mean? What is the chronological relationship between the several scenes? Is this man cute or creepy? Some of these questions will be answered by the end of the hour. Some will not. The audience doesn’t even learn the characters’ names.
Those unanswered (or yet to be answered) questions provide the play with a dreadful tension. Not dreadful as in “bad”, but dreadful as in “creating a sense of dread”. The play is eerie, dark, and suspicious. It raises the heart into the throat and shortens the breath.
Ed Barr-Simm’s performance as the Man was critical to this emotional response. His words can sound perfectly genuine, even while his silences hint at untold truths. But all three actors deserve recognition for their realistic, subtle portrayal. Any moment can release the tension in a scene, but it never dropped. Even during pages of long monologues, there was always a tense distance separating the characters from the audience and each other. Bronte Tadman’s was particularly effective, with pauses just the right length to leave uncertainties hanging.
Add to that some beautiful, lengthy, descriptive passages focused on fishing, and a set that treads between bare realism and hints of the supernatural, aided by eerie sound and light choices, and you have a complete experience. But the same unanswered questions that raise The River up also hold it back. Such incredible tension requires a pay-off, or release of tension, equal in magnitude to satisfy. Whether by issue of script or production, that release doesn’t quite come across. The River is beautiful, swift and gripping, but it never quite makes it to the sea.