Comfort Me With Apples, Hampstead Theatre, London

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The title suggests we are in for something consoling and rural; reality is anything but. Set on a neglected Somerset farm, Nell Leyshon’s haunting play intertwines the dwindling fortunes of a dysfunctional family with declining prospects for the land.

Leyshon catches the point at which what was once a thriving cider orchard and working farm slips beyond repair and inexorably towards the hands of the property developers. It is as bleak and gnarled a play as a bent old apple tree, and as sad as a broken swing.

Central to events is farmer’s wife Irene, ageing, confused and bellicose. As the play opens her husband has just died, and it is clear that this tragedy has provoked passionate arguments between the remaining family members. Irene sulks angrily in her nightdress and wellington boots; her brother (Graham Turner), who clearly has learning disabilities, asks awkward questions; her middle-aged son (Jonathan McGuinness) smoulders with resentment.

Add an estranged daughter (Penny Layden) and a neighbour (Lisa Stevenson), who clearly has history with the son, and the stage is set for a funeral almost as tense as that of Hamlet’s father in Elsinore. Gradually the play edges towards a showdown in the orchard among the fallen apples, as the painful truth about the family past bursts out into the open.

Through this charged atmosphere, Leyshon weaves questions about nurture and neglect, fertility and sterility, security and imprisonment. The emotional and the physical landscape blur together as the play tightens its grip: we are witness to the death of both an ancient way of life and a family. But Leyshon wisely keeps nostalgia and sentiment at bay; clearly the characters are perpetrators as well as victims of their misfortune.

On Mike Britton’s apple-strewn set, Lucy Bailey’s beautifully judged production does full justice to the spare lyricism of Leyshon’s writing. This is frugal dialogue, occasionally lit up by the evocative names of the old apples.

The cast give fine, understated performances, led by Veronica Roberts’ miserable Irene. No, there is no comfort here, just a stark elegy for a world that has slipped away.

Tel +44 20 7722 9301. Also touring www.applestour.co.uk

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