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Fear in a Handful of Dust
COG ARTSpace
14th December 2014

★★★★☆

Publicity image for Fear in a Handful of Dust

Photography supplied by Vertical Line Theatre

With this being the centenary of the start of WWI, there have been a lot of war plays in 2014, such as The Glasshouse and Not About Heroes. This year, even more than ever, has been very much about looking back and remembering our roots.

Playwright Sevan K Greene isn't a stranger to war himself, or indeed the importance of examining the past in order to let go of it, having fled to America during the Gulf War (something we know because he told us in his semi-autobiographical play The Greene Card). In his latest work, Fear in a Handful of Dust, Greene focuses on a chance encounter in the trenches, where two men are forced to forge a kind of uneasy friendship and lay aside their grievances with the world just to survive.

Englishman Simon (Jack Morris) and Irish trench-rat Buck (Henry Regan) are trapped where they are, with a German sniper aware of their exact position and unwilling to let them dart off to safety. Simon hopes for rescue, Buck is more pessimistic. When he signed up for a trip to the battlefield, he knew it was likely to be one-way only. We can see that hollow realisation in his eyes from the very beginning - his initial dialogue is very flat, because he feels like a dead man walking. To let himself be more emotional would hinder his mission and that's currently all he has to cling to.

It's clear the writer isn't British, because in the opening scenes, Simon doesn't chat to Buck about the terrible weather we've been having recently, what ho, and instead - in complete defiance of English breeding - strips off. There's a sudden intimacy which accelerates the bond between the two soldiers and allows them to quickly open up about themselves, their motivations and their loved ones. Not only is this a very human portrait of two men fighting for their lives, but it also briefly touches on some of the tensions surround the fall of the Empire. It's an interesting aspect which perhaps Greene could have explored further.

Throughout the entire piece, Regan's character is stoic, resigned to his fate and only moved to passionate speech when talking in defence of his family and home. Simon by contrast is permanently on edge - unable to even slouch properly - and you half wonder why he hasn't accidentally shot himself by now. Unlike Buck, nothing about Simon screams natural soldier. There's something quite touching about how two men with such different personalities and backgrounds manage to find a common ground, with a tender protectiveness and camaraderie in their later interactions.

I've always found the COG ARTSpace a challenging venue for a director, but Jonny Collis sets it in traverse and makes it into an intimate space in which the entire audience is close to the action and importantly, has a good view. The two actors run up and down the stage, perilously close to the audience at times but this is an advantage of fringe theatre rather than a problem. Wherever you're sat in the audience, at times you're mere inches away from the action. With this proximity, it's hard not to connect with the performers.

Designer Isa Shaw-Abulafia covers the long strip of flooring with sand and wooden pallet staging, with any imperfections smoothed over by some rather striking lighting design by Dan Cornwell. Some scene changes are problematic - you can hear the actors desperately trying to change their costumes before the end of the blackouts - but there's very little that could be done to avoid this, other than perhaps more longer and louder musical sequences.

Taken from the first section of T S Eliot's The Wasteland, the title of this production hints at the despair and cruelty of the situation faced by Simon and Buck. Greene is a man who chooses his words carefully, and sure enough, Fear in a Handful of Dust captures that bleakness well. However, there's also a beauty in this work - you can't fail to be moved by the basic humanity that rests at its core.

Fear in a Handful of Dust opened on 6th December 2014 and runs until 9th January 2015 at COG ARTSpace.

Nearest station: Essex Road (National Rail)



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