Our Big Land, Oval House Theatre
Thursday 20th February 2014
The uncanny is a perpetual human preoccupation. Yet it is hard to realise effectively on stage. The most powerful ghosts are always those you cannot see, so what can be put on stage to suggest unseen dreads?
By contrast with the high-tech fright-fest which is the West End’s Ghost Stories, Dan Allum’s Our Big Land is a rather small-scale piece about a gypsy settlement deep in the woods – and a confrontation with the authorities that is reminiscent of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. But, like Ghost Stories, it also has intimations from another world, a short running time and the ubiquitous police crime-scene tape.
Sophie is a teenager, and her mother said – in the words of the traditional rhyme – that “I never should/ Play with the gypsies in the wood;/ If I did, she would say,/ You naughty girl to disobey.” But she is quite strong-willed and she does disobey, making friends with Oceania, a gypsy woman with spiritual gifts, and her son, Roman.
They live in a caravan (represented in this simple but appealing staging as a model and as a silhouette), they hunt rabbits and live a life of ritual and independence. Soon Roman and Sophie fall in love, quickly followed by a notice to move on from the local council. Is this because, during their gypsy wedding ceremony, a ribbon fell to the ground – a bad omen? Or is it just the inevitable confrontation with mainstream society?
Allum’s play is billed as the first in the United Kingdom to be written by a Romany-Gypsy. Unlike Natasha Langridge’s Shraddha, which told a similar story in 2009, this is written from the inside rather than the outside. In this powerful and compelling staging, directed by Amy Hodge and designed by Takis, the rituals and beliefs of an endangered lifestyle are forcefully conveyed.
The music and the Romany language, used sparingly but convincingly, represents an old way of life that Oceania wants to protect, while Sophie is more focused on making strategic choices to survive new circumstances. She uses the internet to protest against being moved on, while her mother-in-law uses a shotgun.
With its committed trio of actors, Robyn Moore (Oceania), Scarlett Brookes (Sophie) and Samuel Edward-Cook (Roman), this is a show full of spells, earthy and bloody and ultimately sad. It is an admittedly slight story beautifully staged, with enormous integrity and compassion and understanding. It also throbs with a genuine feel for the uncanny.
© Aleks Sierz