Entering the Summerhall Roundabout transports you to a different environment. The lowered roof, compact seating and misty air make the shows within both abstract and focused. The venue seems perfect for Blackthorn, a grounded and intimate play that constructs its characters and their setting from the inside out.
The show follows a boy and girl (unnamed throughout the show), the first children born in a small Yorkshire village in 20 years. A small detail which nevertheless roots both characters towards their home and to each other, like the countryside plant blackthorn that the play is named after. Through snapshots you witness their lives, growing up together, growing apart as they get older, and coming back together. Change is a central concern of Blackthorn, observing both how these individuals and their village develop, steadily becoming more corporate and cynical, and also how neither person is able to fully embrace change, and give in to their desires for each other.
The fairly heavy subject matter is delivered with appropriate weight and feeling, but playwright Charley Miles adds enough wit, energy and details to prevent Blackthorn becoming too dour. Instead it remains a wonderful and fascinating play, delivered with an authentic voice and filled with rich characters. Despite the Roundabout’s abstract space, as well as having no props or other characters, the text vividly paints the environment around the pair. This is assisted by the small but effective technical aspects. Musical cues and environmental sounds add gentle layers to the show without distracting from it.
All this serves to aid the outstanding actors, the definite highlight of the play. Harry Egan and Charlotte Bate deliver exceptional and nuanced performances, with the two of them carrying the entire hour almost flawlessly. Their ferocious chemistry grips the audience through moments of intense emotion. Beyond their shouting though, when the characters hesitate and are unable to articulate their feelings and thoughts, are when the two truly shine. Beautifully aided by the Roundabout’s intimate setting, tiny moments like a small turn, a little dance or a thin smile gain huge significance. Above Miles’ impressive text, the physicality of the actors give their characters life. Supporting the play’s themes, their energy is powerful but insecure, adding to these sensitive and defensive characters. Their bodies are literally straining against themselves, ready to pounce but unwilling to leap first. Such visceral frustration is brutally honest and heartbreaking.
Perhaps inevitably, that frustration starts to be felt by the viewer too. Although the characters’ inability to change is fascinating, near the end it begins to feel rather predictable and risks becoming a little stagnant. Once the pair’s dynamic has been established, and the play’s point made, there are few places left for it to go. Additionally, while wonderfully subtle most of the time, the play does become slightly obvious and overwrought towards the conclusion. Given the strengths of the show are in its small, detailed conservations, it is disappointing when it veers into loud and obvious statements.
But these complaints are only minor issues with an otherwise fantastic production. They are only felt towards the end, if at all, and easily overshadowed by the wrenching and tremendous show. Like the village the two were both born into, Blackthorn will grab hold of you, and prove difficult to shake off.
Summerhall – Roundabout (Venue 26)
August 15-26 (not 21)
Photo credit: Things on Fire Design