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A CurtainUp London Review
2,000 Feet Away
2,000 Feet Away is set in Eldon, Iowa, the inspiration of Grant Wood's painting American Gothic and where, at the Gothic Festival each year, its residents dress up as the portrait's characters and stand in front of the famous house. A new law forbids sex offenders to live within 2,000 feet of anywhere children might congregate, including schools, shopping malls and bus stops. The Deputy (Joseph Fiennes) has to serve eviction notices to his neighbours, even in the midst of his uninterrupted consumption of pancakes and syrup. It soon becomes clear that there is nowhere left for these men who have been removed and dumped now the community has washed its hands of them.
Lucy Osborne's set design simultaneously suggests an endless desert of landscape and the claustrophobia of small town America. Strips of corrugated iron lit by a warm, red glow are seen through a wide panoramic window within the tiny auditorium. The stage is populated by an angled metal table and counter with streaks of rust, while a highway motel sign, representing the last, out-of-town refuge of the sex offenders, is at one end of the stage and a copy of Wood's painting at the other.
Within a skilled, convincing ensemble, Joseph Fiennes is predictably excellent as the affable Deputy charged with enforcing the new law. Playing with the stereotype of dumb, doughnut-eating police officer, his geniality is caught between the fearful vehemence unleashed against the sex offenders and the evicted criminals themselves who he must herd into remoteness. A slight caveat is that Fiennes is too handsome (not to mention slim) to be a permanent bachelor with weight sensitivity issues. Ian Hart is also impressive as A.G, one of the evictees, with his liminal face and sympathetic performance, full of sadness and desperation.
Anthony Weigh's writing is structurally accomplished with short, cinematic-style scenes, ring composition and a shifting focus on the protagonists. The themes the play engages with are fascinating, relevant and with the potential to be considered inflammatorily controversial. Children are not primarily portrayed as victims, but taunting precocious bullies. The villainy comes not from the sex offenders, but a society that endorses a reactive, superficial law which only addresses the symptoms and not the cause of the problem. Religion offers no solution but mindless fire and brimstone talk simply fuels the fear and intolerance.
Also, the play employs two running paradigms: the Pied Piper and the American Gothic painting. Whilst one is a story of unpalatable exiles and selfish mercenary townsfolk, the other indicates the exploration of American identity. Although culturally feted, the painting suggests something primitive and backward about Eldon, a grimly puritanical slice of rural America. Moreover, guarding the property with pitchfork, the couple depicted are a human Keep Out sign.
In a fine production with first-rate acting, this is a non-prescriptive, intelligent play which looks at the root of controversial dialectics. With a full house every performance and a sizeable cast, this play is almost too large for the Bush Theatre, so we can only hope for a West End transfer.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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