There’s a drinks trolley downstage right. Good grief — where are we, the 1930s? Yes. But the cunning new play “Bracken Moor,” a cross between a thunderingly old-fashioned family drama and an unnerving ghost story, is not the dated fare it appears to be. Just when you think you’re enjoying an unusually entertaining genre piece, playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell (“The Pride”) pulls an intriguing switch. The reworking of genre and the unashamed ripeness of the telling is not only a guilty pleasure, it’s likely to prove highly attractive to movie companies.
Much of the power of Polly Teale’s richly atmospheric production springs from Tom Piper’s design which, beneath Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, not only literally creates the heavily wood-paneled home of hard-hearted colliery owner Harold Pritchard (nicely self-satisfied Daniel Flynn) but metaphorically conveys the emptiness of his life with his wife Elizabeth (Helen Schlesinger), who has never recovered from the accidental death of their 12-year-old son, Edgar, 10 years ago.
Elizabeth has finally escaped her grief sufficiently to countenance re-meeting her much-missed best friend Vanessa (deliciously brisk, full-blooded Sarah Woodward) who comes to stay with her gruff husband and more febrile son Terence, who was Edgar’s closest friend. As the latter, Joseph Timms positively gleams with zealous contemporary idealism about the working man and his conditions. “Good God, I was right. Your son’s a Red,” exclaims Harold who, goaded by Terence’s views, grows ever more intransigent over replacing his loyal, local workforce with machinery. So far, so J.B. Priestley, he of “An Inspector Calls.”
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But the highly articulate, spirited opposition of the two men is overtaken by a spirit of an altogether different kind with which Terence becomes possessed. Tension rockets as he is overcome by terror as unknowable family secrets pour forth from his lips, all of which, paradoxically, sets Elizabeth aflame with dangerous hope.
Initially unsettled and then underpinned by a subtly doomy soundscape from composer Jon Nicholls, both play and production consciously flirt with cliche — there’s a dark stormy night replete with thunderclaps and lightning flashes and a suspense-filled shock that brings down the first act curtain. Yet that very self-consciousness is key to the game that Campbell is gradually shown to be playing.
While he’s at it he provides endless opportunities for actors, seized here by an ideal cast, all of whom gain from being reined in by Teale’s direction. She allows emotions to rise without ever letting them boil over. Timms uses his piercing intensity with great discretion which, in turn, provides the motor for Schlesinger. She never vainly emotes. The tears she’s driven to are not an end but the beginning of something far more affecting: the exhaustion and hollowing out of grief.
Those in search of more cutting-edge writing may be disappointed by this seeming lurch backward into tradition. And while it’s abundantly clear that Campbell is using the past to address the present, the knowing quality that emerges won’t appeal to all. Furthermore, the handling of political intent in the scenes that bookend the play could do with pruning – despite the zeal, the author’s voice is louder than that of his lead character.
By the end — which cannot be revealed — it’s clear that the play is, among other things, an experiment in theatricality. But it’s wholly to the play’s credit that instead of using artifice to distancing effect, Campbell is serving up ideas beneath the cloak of entertainment.