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'Further than the Furthest Thing' review — a deeply visceral play finds meaning in the mysterious

Read our four-star review of Zinnie Harris's Further than the Furthest Thing starring Jenna Russell at the Young Vic, with performances through 29 April.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Plays rarely get as out there — literally so — as Further than the Furthest Thing, the Zinnie Harris theatrical fantasia of sorts which opened in 2000 at the National and was seen off-Broadway, in a separate production, in 2002. Now considered a contemporary classic of sorts, not least for its compelling strangeness, Jennifer Tang revives the play into a prime case of elliptical beauty.

Tang and a gifted design team, headed by the seemingly ubiquitous Soutra Gilmour here in minimalist mode, stage events in the round, with audiences encircling the action, and actors who sit between scenes in the aisles, directly next to playgoers.

A deeply moving Jenna Russell, taking a break from her storied musicals career, has the focal role of the islander Mill. We first encounter this sweet-voiced Scotswoman and her husband Bill (Cyril Nri) out in the remote climes of the South Atlantic archipelago of Tristan da Cunha, though the location is never specified in the script.

The pair have a nephew, Francis (Archie Madekwe), who returns home from travels abroad after he was reviled for his unusual speech. (The islanders speak a distinctive, ungrammatical patois distinguished, amongst other things, by adding the letter H when saying things like “H’outside”.) Francis has a girlfriend, Rebecca (an impassioned Kirsty Rider), who is pregnant by someone else and who would quite like not to have the baby girl whose birth is evocatively depicted at the close of the first act.

It’s 1961, and a volcanic eruption displaces this remote populace to the comparative bustle of Southampton, where we find ourselves after the interval — an incident that actually happened to this one-time British dependency. What transpires is an empathically imagined investigation into what we mean by “home”, folded into an often-grim parable of acculturation.

The Anglo-Bangladeshi vocalist Shapla Salique adds to the play’s aural allure. Mill finds herself puzzling out “puddings” as if the very meaning of that British mainstay were somehow alien to her sense of self. The self-appointed chaplain of the island from which he has been evacuated, Bill gets tested in his own way — subsumed by grief and guilt as he and his wife discover a land of umbrellas and royalty, not seaweed seeping over one’s shoes.

The play features a conjurer-villain of sorts in Gerald Kyd’s Mr. Hansen, a South African factory owner who is revealed to be less charming than first thought. A jar manufacturer, Mr. Hansen exists to upend tradition, bringing with him the promise of money which isn’t enough for such stalwarts as Mill, who exists in mourning for a vanished, and vanishing, way of life.

The quintet on view is gradually seen to exist within the context of larger, impersonal forces — colonial misrule, for one thing — that flavours a play that may seem elusive at first but coalesces in the mind after the fact.

That’s especially true of a staging as alert as this one to the imaginative reach of a text that unapologetically makes demands upon its audience: quite a few spectators disappeared at the interval, though those who stayed proffered a rousing response at the bows. Gilmour’s turntable design proffers an amphitheatre given shape and depth by Prema Mehta’s lighting and George Dennis’s sound design: joint contributors to the arresting otherness of the occasion.

Ian William Galloway’s video design ramps up the atmospherics of a play that seems to have sprung from Harris in defiance of the time-honoured dictum to write what you know: the author on this occasion has been emboldened by inspiration and invention, not direct experience.

Her play benefits no end from a cast who seem visibly affected by the tale they are telling: Russell, in particular, looked appropriately misty-eyed following a ravishing monologue to find musicality of an altogether different kind in the verbal idiosyncrasies at work here. This performer is given brief passages of song for those wanting a reminder of the career that has brought her to this place, to which she responds with a deeply visceral connection that finds meaning in the mysterious. Stick with it, and you may well, too.

Further than the Furthest Thing is at the Young Vic through 29 April. Book Further than the Furthest Thing tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Jenna Russell (centre), Gerald Kyd, Archie Madekwe and Cyril Nri in Further than the Furthest Thing at Young Vic (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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