Paines Plough at 40

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Paines Plough at 40: Three New Plays by Nick Payne, Robin French and Kate Douglas. Dir. James Grieve, George Perrin, Sasha Yevtushenko. Perf. Susan Brown, Clare Corbett, Karl Johnson. BBC Radio 3, 21 December 2014.
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Since its inception over a pint of Paines bitter at the Plough pub, the theatre company has established its reputation for touring new plays all over Great Britain as well as worldwide. Recorded at the BBC Radio Theatre in central London, this triple bill of new writing was performed by the same core ensemble.

Happiness by Nick Payne focused on the efforts of Karen (Clare Corbett) and Richard (Bryan Dick) to find a solution to their marital problems. Having been made redundant, Richard occupied much of his time with hare-brained schemes as well as some interesting new sex-games that he wanted his wife to play. For her part, Karen found solace in a weekly series of cuddling sessions, during which time she developed a close relationship with Spanish immigrant Maria (Susan Brown). Using the pronouncements of a Voice (Karl Johnson), recorded on a self-help tape (or CD) James Grieve's production focused on the disparity between ideal and reality: the Voice offered a series of maxims, backed up with statistical advice, as to how human beings should behave in order to sustain their relationships; through bitter experience, Richard and Karen found out for themselves what they really wanted. Not only did they have to break free of familial responsibilities, especially looking after their daughter; but they had to understand the arbitrariness of life; inevitably circumstances might conspire to threaten their relationship, but they had to acquire sufficient strength of character to withstand them.

Ingeniously constructed as a play for voices that deliberately played with time; contrasting past with present by having Karen tell much of the action in letter-form, as if speaking to Amy; Happiness offered plenty of opportunities to reflect on the importance of ignoring the advice of so-called ' 'experts.'

George Perrin's production of Silver Drills by Robin French made intelligent use of radio's sonic resources to create the world of a mittel-European zoo, which tried to increase its box-office returns by providing space for some silver drill monkeys, under the care of eccentric Professor Milton (Karl Johnson). Initially it seemed as if the deal satisfied everyone: museum boss George (Bryan Dick) increased his media presence, the keeper Nathan (Monty d'Inverno) got to look after the animals, while the Professor had the chance to conduct future researches. As the plot developed, so the story became more and more reminiscent of Orwell's Animal Farm, with the silver drill monkeys recalling the pigs as they assumed more and power, even over human beings.

Parts of this play were extremely funny, especially when the Professor kept making rather eccentric pronouncements about his charges; physical and mental capabilities. Yet the laughter soon palled, once his true purpose had become evident. George's partner Louise (Clare Corbett) met a sticky end in a truly frightening sequence using animal noises. We were forcibly reminded of our responsibility to endure the survival of humankind, even if it meant foregoing opportunities for fame and fortune.

The final play in the trilogy, Reunion, took place in real time, and involved the difficulties experienced by fortysomething Gary (Bryan Dick) in looking after his cantankerous parents (Karl Johnson, Susan Brown). Although separated from one another, it was clear that they were still attracted to one another; hence Gary could not understand why they didn't choose to live together again. While spending so much time worrying, Gary ignored the pleas of his partner Rose (Clare Corbett) to look for a new flat; something that ultimately put his relationship in danger. Although Katie Douglas's play ended happily, we were left to reflect on the ways in which parents often put their children first, to the detriment of their own happiness. Until this moment, Gary had been blissfully unaware of this, as he stayed at home until his mid-thirties, and even forced Rose to sleep at his parents’ house, despite the fact that they were not allowed to sleep together.

In sonic terms, Reunion was perhaps the least adventurous of the three plays, but Sasha Yevtushenko's production showed a fine grasp of the comic repartee that kept Gary's parents together emotionally, if not physically. They were a double-act, even though they rather paradoxically admitted that they were incapable of living together any more.

The decision to record the productions in front of a live audience was a judicious one; not only did it show how versatile the actors were in assuming different roles (and provoking conflicting reactions); but the audience's presence invested the productions with a sense of spontaneity and freshness; the very qualities that should distinguish all forms of new play-writing. Paines Plough should be congratulated on a highly successful set of productions.