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A CurtainUp London Review
Afore Night Come
by Lizzie Loveridge
Afore Night Come was inspired by Rudkin's seeing Pinter's The Birthday Party, and a vacation job he had fruit picking one summer. Kenneth Tynan, the well known British theatre critic, said of Afore Night Come, "Not since Look Back in Anger has a playwright made a debut more striking than this".
Afore Night Come is a study in group dynamics of fruit pickers in a country area. These workers have to fill up six hundred boxes of pears before they can start to earn bonuses on "piecework". Into this group come two strangers, two fruit pickers who do not "fit" a university student, Larry (Jack Tarlton) and an enigmatic Irishman who looks like a tramp, Roche (Ewan Hooper) but whose lyrical expression earns him the sobriquet "Shakespeare". These men have to work as part of a team and are penalised if one or more workers does not pull his weight, picking the correct kind of fruit from all of the tree not just at head height, of the required ripeness, without damaging it and at speed. What starts as a portrait of the camaraderie of country folk, of the hierarchy of the group of workers in a pear orchard, develops as a sinister story of bullying, ritual and murder. The murder serves not only to eliminate the weakest link, as the foreman, philosopher, Spens (Patrick Drury) says, "Where'm your slowest man? Find him. Find your slowest man. Chase him." but the knowledge of this crime and implication in it serves to bind members to the group. All the men are affected by the crop spraying with chemicals which they know will affect human fertility.
Much of the language is from the Black Country, the area of England in the Midlands, parts of Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire, so called because of the way in which the area was blackened by the coal and iron trades. This is where Birmingham is pronounced "Brumagen". This is the play's strength because the dialect gives it authenticity, but it is also difficult for those unfamiliar with the accent to pick up every word. I have found reading the text that there were passages whose significance I initially missed. Fortunately the complete text is included in the programme.
Rufus Norris gives a production in the round at the Young Vic's small space. The low ceiling with its myriad of hanging light bulbs, most of them unlit, as if they are pears awaiting picking, gives the set a darkness, almost a night time feel. On the wooden stage with its many exit ramps are the wooden boxes for packing the fruit. Off stage there is the noise of tractors, of the helicopter spraying insecticide and on stage, the buzz and frisson of water making contact with electricity. All provides for a realistic and atmospheric picture of life forty years ago except that the events here have an exceptional and disconcerting ending. The rain and the insecticide spraying are effectively staged with the aid of a waterist.
Of the performances. Ewan Hooper is outstanding as the wily Irishman with the touch of lead. Clad in a filthy overcoat, a tea cloth tied on his head and weird pointed dark glasses, he looks bizarre but he speaks with a silvered tongue. I also liked Patrick Drury's Spens, the foreman, the middle man between the owner and the fruit pickers. Spens is at turns friend and disciplinarian and contrasts with the panicking owner, Mr Hawkins (Peter Pacey) and his bossy, strutting, jodphured daughter Gloria (Zoe Dawson). Laurence Mitchell gives a tender portrait of the innocent Johnny "Hobnails" Carter, , obsessed with religious imagery but loving towards Larry, the student. Jack Tarlton as Larry is distanced from these workers by education but under different circumstances he and Hobnails could have become lovers.
So how does the piece stand up to time, this ground breaking play forty years after its first production? The violence did not shock me as it would have audiences of the early 1960s but there is powerful imagery as the victim is pinned with a pitchfork. I heard echoes of the future, Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orange, The Straw Man and Lord of the Flies, and of Harold Pinter. You may debate long and hard the reason for this murder which I felt was but one of a series. Overall a very good, atmospheric production and with some outstandingly beautiful language, the point of which I found hard to grasp.