Nan, Orange Tree, Richmond

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Now here’s a trick they seem to have missed on Big Brother. Pigswill. If you are sharing a house with someone you’d like to be rid of, and wish to convey that fact to them, never mind muttering darkly in the kitchen. Soak their best coat in pigswill – that should do the trick.

It certainly works for Aunt Kate in John Masefield’s Nan. At church, Aunt Kate is praised for taking in her orphaned niece, Nan; but back home she’s as bitter as they come. Steeping the girl’s coat in pigswill is just one of her many triumphs of psychological torture. Poor Nan is at her wits’ end. But this being rural England in 1810, and Nan being a penniless beauty and the disgraced daughter of a supposed sheep rustler, she has no option but to stay and suffer her vicious aunt. Until Aunt Kate goes a step too far and poisons the (admittedly limited) mind of Nan’s sweetheart, Dick. Then it’s game on.

Masefield’s drama was in fact written in 1907, but it’s a world away from our usual image of Edwardian drama. No potted aspidistras here: Masefield sets his Hardyesque tragedy in the kitchen of a poor farm on the banks of the Severn. In this harsh world, the spectre of abject poverty might drive a man to steal a sheep, a woman to cheat her niece and a young man to jilt the love of his life. Times are hard and justice is rough. Masefield’s play certainly makes a point, but for today’s audience its ripe turns of phrase and melodramatic twists can be hard to swallow.

What’s remarkable about Auriol Smith’s revival is that you can laugh at the play’s excesses, yet still care about its characters. As so often at this address, the set and acting are so lovingly detailed that you feel you are in the kitchen with them. Smith’s production can be touchingly funny – as in the awkward small talk between Nan and Dick (Edward Bennett) – and it rides the rising tide of doom pretty well. Kate Lock as Aunt Kate seems shrivelled up by hardship, while Amy Neilson Smith is likewise good as her two-faced daughter. And Katie McGuinness gives a lovely performance as Nan, a girl with too much spirit and integrity to stay on in this grubby world.
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