Glass Eels @ Hampstead Theatre, London

directed by
Lucy Bailey
I doubt it’s a truth universally acknowledged that girls in thin dresses going down to the river at night will undergo a sexual awakening but it probably ought to be.

Glass Eels, Nell Leyshon’s follow-up to the award-winning Comfort Me With Apples, suffers a little from the inevitability of its plot, which offers few surprises. Lily, pale and gauche in her cotton shift, lives with her father and grandfather by a river that takes a life each year first man, then woman, then child.

Years have passed since Lily’s mother drowned there, and her father has forbidden her to go down to the water but it’s a sweltering August night, and the cool water, lapping at the stage, offers welcome relief from the heat. She slips out when she can, leaving her grandfather grumbling at the dining table, and kneels by the water. From there she sees her father embracing his new lover, and it’s there she makes awkward advances to Kenneth, a gruff young man who lives nearby.

That the play is intensely atmospheric is its main delight. The set is wreathed in mist, and a thin stream trickles down through the dilapidated house and pools at the front of the stage. The lighting shifts effectively between noon and midnight, and the river gurgles as eels come up from the mud. Patient attention to detail has been paid to every prop – it’s certainly the only play I’ve seen in which an eel is skinned and gutted onstage. (The latter drew gasps of horror from those members of the audience who presumably think shrink-wrapped packets of fish grow on trees in the Waitrose car park: it’s only my beautiful good nature that prevented me from flinging my bottle of Evian at their foolish little heads). Altogether, it’s a gorgeous evocation of the south-west, Leyshon’s home and inspiration.

After a while, though, the vividly-realised imagery becomes too strong a presence. Symbolism is best left to slip into the subconscious here, I felt as if I were being bashed about the head with it, and (perhaps unfairly) began to roll my eyes at every mention of a muscular silver-skinned eel writhing in the mud, or a blood-red hunter’s moon. Eels, eh, I thought. Dear me. A surging river, you say? Goodness: what can they possibly be getting at? Sadly, this rather undermined the story, which seemed to have a kind of ruthless inevitability: the instant a willow-thin girl douses herself in river-water to cool off on a sultry summer night, things are pretty much only headed one way.

Leyshon’s use of language mixes keenly-observed rural dialect with lyricism of the kind rarely seen in contemporary drama. For the most part, it’s a happy marriage, though there were one or two places reminiscent of a meeting of the Somerset haiku society, where Lily and Kenneth stand by the river trading observations. I’m ecstatic whenever writers have the courage to depart from the vernacular, and at times her flashes of wit are nothing short of brilliant, but I absolutely refuse to be believe that a stroppy teenager will muse about ‘the wax-white moon.’

As Lily, Laura Elphinstone is appropriately gauche, though I’d have welcomed a little more range to her emotions, since there is only a certain amount of gaucherie one can stand before the urge to administer a slap becomes overwhelming. Tom Georgeson as her grandfather is a delight in every movement made and word spoken. He’s both poignant and curmudgeonly, and memorably reminds his son that conversation is ‘when you open your mouth and swap words with someone.’ Tom Burke as Kenneth is troubled, but also very funny, which cannot be an easy feat. Phillip Joseph as Lily’s father, and Diane Beck as his lover, are entirely capable.

It is altogether a mixed evening, but one that has the great virtue of offering as thorough a retreat from wet London pavements as can be had at short notice and Leyshon’s skill with language is unlikely to disappoint.

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