The Royal Court prides itself on its new writing, and the variety of programmes it offers to develop the country’s and the world’s best writers. One of its Young Writers' Programme alumnus, Simon Longman, makes his Royal Court debut with Gundog.
Sisters Anna and Becky stumble across Guy, a migrant who’s traipsing their sheep farm for metal to scrap. Rather than chase him off, they open their arms and let him stay with them, offering food and shelter in return for an extra pair of hands delivering lambs. He stays for years in what seems to be a stagnant life on the farm.
When the family’s brother, Ben, returns from his abrupt disappearance, we trace back to earlier days. Ben’s back living with his sisters and their grandfather on the farm. There’s nothing subtle about the fact Mick has developed dementia (he asks the same question five times in as many minutes as if repetition repetition is the only sign of the illness). Coping with this is stressful enough, but we learn the family’s dad - who suffers from mental health problems - has been tipped over the edge from witnessing the slaughter of a hefty flock of sheep.
Snap back to the present, the brother’s return to the farm and his ensuing breakdown, brought on by his inability to lamb a ewe - something that clearly makes him feel inadequate compared to his family and their foreign lodger. Ben draws parallels between having to put down the baby lamb, and the 40 that were shot in front of his father the day he committed suicide, sending him a little bit mental in the process.
The text plays with time, hurtling between years at click of a finger, but the characters don’t seem to change at all. The earliest we see Becky she is of school leaving age, and we hurtle about five to six years ahead of that, but she doesn’t seem to develop at all. The characters seem to be written in the same moody, gormless style of Netflix series The End of the F***ing World, but it doesn’t translate on stage. Only Alex Austin as tormented Ben seems to inject any much-needed energy into the production.
It’s a pretty tedious play that seems to be trying to hit on three or four things, but it never really develops a clear voice on any of them. It’s hard to tell what Longman’s point on mental health is, and we get a grasp of Ben’s contradictory xenophobia towards Guy, but overall there is a sense of hopelessness.
Gundog does, however, look marvellous. Chloe Lamford’s set is full of mud with two piles lumped up against a glass back wall, behind which smoke is constantly puffed out. Combined with Lee Curran’s lighting, this creates a gorgeous candyfloss effect, but makes for some bleak moments.
There are some piercing moments between the scenes, namely the use of some frankly painful white noise static pumped into the theatre for no discernible reason.
A little more focus, and a clearer voice, and this could have been an engaging family drama.
What the popular press said...
"While there are glimmers of promise lurking in the sod of Simon Longman’s play about rural life, this Herefordshire-raised Royal Court debutant rubs our noses in agrarian bleakness to the point of gagging tedium."
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph (two stars)
"Longman plays with the past and present and the unchanging cycles that tie the family to the land. This is a compelling, unforgiving glimpse into rural life, and one in which there is not a single fluffy, gambolling lamb in sight."
Lyn Gardner, The Guardian (four stars)