After a revival of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 200 year old play Nathan The Wise Hampstead Theatre returns to staging new writing with Nell Leyshon’s Comfort Me With Apples. Set in a declining Somerset cider orchard, though it is about lost ways of life and fading rural traditions, this is not a play that rages; it tackles its subject with poignancy, lyricism and a measure of muted anger and is all the stronger for it.
Leyshon’s play, only her second, is a little creaky in the beginning, as elderly cardigan-clad Irene (Anna Calder-Marshall) and her somewhat slow-witted brother Len (Alan Williams) bicker in their rundown farmhouse kitchen. Their thick West Country accents and repetitive dialogue initially raise barriers; the piece feels rigid and difficult to follow. But these worries soon fade as Leyshon starts spinning out her subtle narrative.
Irene’s husband, we discover, has just died and the repercussions are set to ripple through the family, most notably by drawing Brenda – the estranged daughter she has not seen in three years – back to the farm. Irene’s personality continually veers between domineering and fragile; her controlling ways have already been responsible for driving her daughter away and over the years she has also stamped all the spirit out of her son Roy.
Throughout the first act of the play Leyshon hints at all manner of darkness in the family’s past though nothing is made explicit. With the funeral imminent mother and daughter continue to clash and things are intensified by the return of Linda, the woman Roy was once in love with, and who was also pushed away by an almost incestuously possessive Irene.
Lucy Bailey, fresh from directing Val Kilmer in The Postman Always Rings Twice draws out the drama with real skill, aided by complex and compelling performances from Calder-Marshall and Helen Schlesinger as her tormented daughter. The design is also top-notch. Mike Britton’s stylistic set merges outside with in; the stage carpeted with soil and leaf-litter, with fallen apples. The branches that hang down, bare of fruit and leaves, in the second half have the appearance of roots and it’s as if the stage is sandwiched in some strange half-way place; it’s very striking.
Leyshon is from the West Country herself and she permeates the play with the region’s own particular customs and myths. Yet there’s a poetic universality to the closing scenes – a real sense of mourning for worlds’ lost to time. Certain elements of the family drama – the overbearing matriarch, the return of the estranged child – are over-familiar and not everything knits together as successfully as it could but Leyshon is an inventive writer and while this is not a spectacularly original piece of work it is one of many unexpected pleasures.