Theatre / Lightship Theatre

Review: Set Adrift, The Lightship Theatre – ‘a beautifully crafted exploration of modern rural life’

By Molly Pipe , Wednesday Mar 16, 2022

Set Adrift is a beautifully crafted exploration of modern rural life, highlighting the difficulties of holding onto identity in an increasingly urban and globalised world. It is an astonishing piece of writing by Briony Pope, and has been realised with some powerful performances and direction.

On a farm in Somerset, Rosalie works to sell off the house her family has owned for generations, unable to sustain the costs of supporting herself and her daughter on her pension.

Onto the land comes Londoner Steven and his Polish wife Irena. The boundless optimist (when the going is good), Steven has dreamt of and romanticised the farm since his mother took him there, where she herself grew up, when he was a boy.

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Since his mother’s death, he has been desperate to buy the land, to recapture the heritage that his mother was separated from – but Steven fails to see that in doing so, he is ripping his own wife from her heritage and community.

Simon Vardakis is excellent casting as the idealistic and self-certain Steven. With booming voice and expansive gestures, he fills any room he is in with joviality and humour.

But he never really listens to those around him, looking up from his phone at the last second to agree heartily with the last thing that has been said. Yet there is hurt in this character too, and Steven can be drawn into displair just as grand as his moments of joy.

Set Adift at The Lightship Theatre – photo Briony Pope

Like all the characters in this play, Irena is delicately constructed and delicately played. I made the mistake early on of thinking that the actor (Suzanne Kendall) was doing a poor job: faced with an unnerving encounter with a local, she keeps the character unnaturally cheerful.

But my initial analysis that the actor wasn’t really responding to the action around her was soon corrected. This cheeriness is carefully plotted. Irena is scared, but she can’t show it.

She is the one who always seeks to please, who tries to keep the peace when her house, and her morality, are attacked. When those around her are hostile, she tries to avoid the conflict.

Set Adrift at The Lightship Theatre – photo: Briony Pope

But conflict is unavoidable for the daughter of landowner Rosalie. Margot has grown up on this land, expecting to take it on with her mother’s death. But the old ways say that a woman can’t inherit, and the new ways say that no one can run a farm on their own.

So Rosalie puts the house on the market, and Margot stalks the kitchen and grounds, brooding on the lost land given up to these non-English, non-rural outsiders.

Stephanie Weston gives the most powerful performance of the play as isolated, ‘weird’ Margot. She carries a dangerous energy with her, a constant threat of doing something bad – but what it will be, and who it will hurt, is impossible to tell.

Weston is so still, so cinematic. She is a magnetic actor to watch, and if there is any justice in the theatre world, she should become a star.

Set Adift at The Lightship Theatre – photo: Briony Pope

The play bears political discussion easily and without bluntness, principally addressing the problems facing rural populations in an urban age.

While Steven holds a romanticised view of the countryside (he being the one who has never lived there, of course), the others know better. Irena grew up on a Polish geese farm, while Rosalie and Margot have lived their lives on this land.

They know the hardships of rural life, where bus stops are a drive away, mechanics cannot be called out for broken pumps, young people grow up without contemporaries, and rivers flow dangerously close to flood plains.

Irena despairs that she has been brought back to a life she sought to escape, while her husband tries to make the move permanent.

The Lightship Theatre interior – photo: Briony Pope

Rosalie’s portrayal, by Emma Firman, is utterly convincing. She really is every inch a rural farmer, resourceful, resilient, and unendingly practical. ‘You have to be bloody minded to survive in the country,’ she says.

Later, her daughter is outraged that city boy Steven doesn’t understand the significance of the local post office closing. It is the cutting of yet another lifeline for this increasingly isolated community and will leave multiple villages without a shop, but for Steven it is a merely point of interest; an interesting bit of gossip.

Set Adrift is immensely layered and beautifully delivered, and addresses one of the great overlooked issues in our society. This production deserves more than a four day run, and I strongly urge readers to catch it before it closes.

Set Adrift continues at The Lightship Theatre on March 16, 18 and 19. For more information and tickets, go to www.eventbrite.co.uk.

Main photo: Briony Pope

Read more: The Lightship Arts Festival prepares to launch

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