There’s a beautiful space in theatre for transporting audiences out of the city. The Forest of Arden is the quintessential challenge for any designer, and the ways in which productions approach depicting rural life and nature is one of the many joys of such productions.

Credit: Marc Brenner

In Village Idiot, Lily Arnold’s set stands out — a gorgeous, lush arrangement of tree trunks that retreat into the distance as the action is played out in a fluid space of indoor/outdoor, near and far. Samson Hawkin’s debut play about the threatened future of the villagers of Syresham, Northamptonshire oozes with local joy, capturing the specific language, phrases and mannerisms of its characters as they wrestle with an insecure future. In a co-pro with the Ramps on the Moon consortium, this original Nottingham Playhouse commission presents a story that centres not only lesser-heard-from small-town communities, but deaf and disabled characters, with Faye Wiggan and Maximilian Fairley bringing truth and passion to characters who are sick of being seen as vulnerable. It’s a gentle but bold combination, incorporating a charmingly safe environment for these authentic voices to emerge but doing so with humour, swearing and a lot of smut.

The show is best when it embraces this spirit of thoughtful irreverence. The unexpected brashness of Debbie (Wiggan) shrugging off her father’s protective shield; grandmother Barbara (Eileen Nicholas) of brothers Peter (Philip Labey) and Harry (Maximilian Fairley) shouting everyone down for giving up on the town; the brilliant crassness of Peter and his old school friend Liam’s (Joseph Langdon) extensive unpacking of what being gay is. (It’s not just bumming!) This exploration of a queer relationship emerging across lines of class and ‘outness’ touches beautifully on themes of family, social mobility, and the fear of getting left behind, and the main story is personal, political, and a lot of fun — deftly capturing a swathe of issues brought about by the relocation of people in the wake of HS2. 

However, as the drama builds and lines are drawn, the divisions between aspirational city boy Peter and the townsfolk are interrupted by an accident that halts the progression and stops the drama from reaching a proper conclusion. The ensuing shift into a vengeful fantasy of nature, while featuring some absolutely stunning stage images, doesn’t quite deliver an emotional punch, and leaves us with a rather trite and earnest message of finding hope in nature.

Credit: Marc Brenner

Some of the variety acts also drop the energy, with a combination of rap, drag, magic and village fair prize announcements delivering a patchy respite from the story. These moments often feel underdeveloped and cute, lacking in the craft and boldness that the various media they borrow from can possess. However, I have never seen the concept of a relaxed performance introduced with such humour and it really warms the crowd up for a pleasant and enjoyable experience. The standout performances come from Nicholas and Fairley, with hearty, energetic contributions from the cast all-round. While it does walk a strong line between light entertainment and story, it’s not quite a finished piece, and while Nadia Fall’s direction is spacious and playful, at times some of the acts feel undercooked.

This is truly an innovative approach to theatre-making, combining politics, dialect, well-integrated disabled stories and elements of panto, but an over-reliance on novelty and design leads to a somewhat deflated finish, not quite living up to its promise of raucous revolution. It is however a bold debut with some excellent scenes, charming performances and a stunning set. An original and genuinely laugh-out-loud — if at times frustrating — production.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Village Idiot is on at Theatre Royal Stratford East until the 6th of May – tickets and info here.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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