Review: Blackthorn at Leeds Playhouse

Thursday 4th October 2018 at Leeds Playhouse (Pop Up).


Blackthorn is a new work from Charley Miles exploring familiar territory which seems to be a growing focal point for contemporary writers: the way life choices can cause rifts between people so similar at the beginning of the tale. Those born in the same place can end up worlds apart and if those people try to maintain a connection even while their lives follow such different trajectories, there are going to be some significant signs of deep discord to explore.

In small villages, the mentality seems to be that you’re either a lifer or a deserter and if you’re a lifer, you have the right to feel the pain of the ground beneath your feet, but if you depart and therefore desert, you hold no rights over this land where you were merely born and grew up. Charlotte Bate and Harry Egan play ‘Her’ and ‘Him’ – characters representing generations of divided lives despite being born in the same place, growing up with the similar influences and holding fast to one another as best they can. Through their connection, Miles takes a look at the sense of disconnect felt or forced upon those who take a chance and move away while others stay within the confines of the familiar well trodden track.

The set-up is as well drawn as The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse; when two friends grow up, one leaves the small village and the other stays. Values and viewpoints begin to shift, frictions mount and prejudice and paranoia bubble. Bate and Egan give fine performances and offer the full spectrum when it comes to these characters: both are flawed and both suffer their truths in silence, being first too stubborn, then too awkward, then too tied up and tied down and confused by misunderstandings to ever really take hold of the unspoken situation between them.

We meet the pair first as small children playing games and tearing about the place, bickering and vying for the upper-hand from the word go. But there’s affection too – more on the part of her than him, but it’s there. From here we see the seasons of their lives turn until we’re looking at them as fully fledged adults. Jacqui Honess-Martin’s direction has both performers clearly signposting the shifting ages of the characters across the performance – growing up before our eyes in a classic combination of illusions – voice, movement (Natasha Harrison) and script all mark the passage of time. Harrison’s choreography offers the piece both energetic pace and surreal moments where time slows and our performers guide us into the next vignette playing out between these troubled millennials.

Where does the friction come from? He is battling recognisable struggles: non- academic, broken home, insecure and unsure. She is succeeding in ways which only create fractures: she a Gifted and Talented girl living in the big city and broadening her horizons. There’s much unsaid between them and the silences between them grow with the geographical distance; there can be only one solution to their frustrating game of come-hither-get-lost. Rifts are definitely evident early on, but the nature of them shifts – one minute it’s about what game to play, the next, it’s about the unbreakable ties of inherited land.

While Miles’ work gives fleeting glimpses of their relationship from young children to teenagers, the production is most interested in the lives of this pair as as adults taking stock of the decisions they’ve made. Both show arrogance, hypocrisy, intolerance and selfishness, making it difficult to connect with either at times, but the production gives an interesting account of modern relationships which are so tied up with ideas of entitlement, belonging and the notion of home.

Blackthorn plays at Leeds Playhouse as part of Furnace Festival until October 6th 2018 and you can find tickets here.

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