It is March 1941. While the Blitz rips apart British cities, five residents of tranquil ‘Shuttlefield’ village gather in the local hall to rehearse an am-dram performance of Henry V. Using this deceptively simple contrivance, writer Laura Crow evokes themes of heroism and battle whilst actually excavating the complex personal back-stories and motivations of the cast members.
The play spans the four-week rehearsal period, and from the outset there are intimations of darkness behind each character’s benign facade. Ruby (the am-dram director and moving force) displays an intensity of commitment and jolly optimism about the endeavour which turns out to be the sublimation of disappointed hopes and frustrated desires. Her younger sister, Katherine, is on the autistic spectrum and her extraordinary memory and analytical abilities mask a struggle to interpret the alien social world she inhabits. The two male cast-members are somewhat shifty about their respective (very different) reasons for not being currently involved in the fighting and the bubbly evacuee from London seems to evince a puzzling lack of enthusiasm about any prospective return of her naval officer husband.
As the ‘weeks’ go by, mysteries and tensions develop and while some of the ‘reveals’ are predictable, the quality of the writing is sensitive and subtle and the characters that emerge go beyond the stereotypes that we might fear at the outset. And as their back stories are juxtaposed with excerpts from Henry V, serious questions are raised about heroism and the ways in which we find meaning in our lives. While Henry V’s military ‘greyhounds’ strain against their collars to follow him into battle, each of the characters here seems to be straining heroically against their own external and internal constraints to pick their own individual paths through the social expectations and moral imperatives of wartime Britain.
Crow’s script shows subtlety, insight and complexity, and her own performance (as the earnest Katherine) is very convincing, and delightfully contrasted with the effervescent Nancy (Rachel Horobin) and the gentle and reflective Will (Jacob Taylor). There is also a remarkable level of care and attention to detail throughout which conveys a sense of historical authenticity – even down to the play programme, modelled on a WW2 Identity Card. ‘Greyhounds’ is, however, hampered by the size of the venue and some of the staging detracts from the pace of the piece. This is particularly true of the scene changes, which feel rather clunky. The passage of time, for example, seems at first nicely conveyed by writing the date for each rehearsal on a chalk board – but the practicalities of retrieving the chalk, rubbing out the previous date and replacing it by the new one turn out to be disproportionately laborious, interrupting the flow and becoming quite distracting as the piece progresses.
‘Greyhounds’ is an ambitious, tardis-like production. Set in a tiny rural village, staged in the smallest theatrical space I have ever encountered (seating around 20 people) and under an hour in length, the play addresses a range of very big issues (the morality of war, pacifism, feminism, family obligation, domestic violence) and at its heart is an exploration of the nature of courage and personal fulfilment. That’s a lot of meat to pack into such a diminutive container. Only occasionally does it feel somewhat squashed, and then it is because some excellent and penetrating lines feel a little rushed or glossed over.
Verdict: A big little play, cleverly crafted and lovingly produced.