You can’t accuse Progress Theatre of not taking on a challenge. This month they present Jez Butterworth’s hugely acclaimed ‘state-of-the-nation drama’ Jerusalem. Launched at London’s Royal Court in 2009 the original run of Jerusalem was called the ‘theatrical event of the decade’ by The Telegraph. It attracted awards galore for the magnetic central performance by Mark Rylance, and headlines galore for its brash dialogue, liberal sprinkling of the C-word and live chickens on stage.
At its essence though, Jerusalem is a portrait of a man struggling to dealing with change. We follow one day in the life of former village fair daredevil Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron: he’s the wild man of the woods, a drug dealer, a thrower of chemically-induced raves, and a teller of tall tales – the type of man who revels in holding court at a party and who’s been barred from every pub in town.
It’s St George’s Day and the day of the Flintock Village Fair. Rooster and the entourage of teenagers who hang out at his caravan are coming down from a big one and looking forward to coming up again while watching the morris dancing or the donkey drop. But the clock is ticking on Rooster’s encampment. Tomorrow Kennet & Avon Council plan to forcibly evict him after 30 years of evasion.
Jon Goodman’s production at Progress takes a smaller stage, a community theatre cast, and no live chickens, but this performance is just as magnetic, even without Mark Rylance at the helm. It’s riotously funny, a fast-paced witty comedy that had me laughing for near three hours straight without ever feeling like it dragged.
But it’s also an affecting play connecting us to a rural community of misfits who’ve never strayed far from their village; Davey Dean’s “ears pop when he leaves Wiltshire”. These are people who want to move on but can’t and need to move on but don’t want to.
The ensemble cast are vivid and gel well together. After a slightly cautious and slow paced opening, perhaps first night nerves, by the second act the pacy dialogue zipped along with ease and I believed this motley crew of teenagers, oddballs and wannabe DJs had been sitting around the caravan sharing a spliff and teasing each other for months.
Dominating over all of them is Matt Tully as Rooster, who shows remarkable stamina to keep up the intense monologues and bonkers speeches, rarely leaving the stage for the full three hours.
He’s full of bluster and puffed up pomp, revelling in nonsense about giants and nostalgia for his youth. But Tully brings a tenderness and a sorrow to his stories too. I got the sense that Rooster had been telling these same tales for years, the stories his only constant as the crowd around him gets ever younger and more distant.
Rex Rayner and Laurence Maguire make a chuckle-worthy double act as coked-up friends Davey Dean and Lee Piper, who approach their lack of opportunities in Flintock in opposite ways. While abattoir worker Davey throws his salary at drugs and alcohol to forget that he’ll probably spend his whole life killing cattle, his gurning mate Lee needs to sober up fast enough to get the 6am coach to Heathrow for a more adventurous life in Australia. Although it’s a pairing full of laughs, the moment they both realise they’re scared of the future is touching and honest.
The village just down the hill comes to feel like a real and vibrant place thanks to a lineup of vivid characters entering Rooster’s world.
We meet the eccentric dog-walking professor, played with an away with fairies delight by Alison Hill, the morris dancing, coke-taking pub landlord Wesley, whose comic dancing is a joy. More terrifying is Peter Cook who is visceral and intimidating as local hardman Troy on the hunt for his missing step daughter.
Steph Gunner-Lucas is fierce and determined as Dawn, the mother of Johnny’s son. She’s the only person who seems to understand and get frustrated with Johnny’s fear of moving forward. First aggressively, later affectionately pushing him to move, grow and try to get his life together.
Set design by Tony Travis is gorgeous and immersive, almost a character of its own. Playwright Jez Butterworth described wanting to bring the outdoors in to the theatre with this play and Progress have achieved that believably with a softly lit leafy wood scene. Rooster’s iconic caravan ‘Waterloo’ dominates the stage and his camp of detritus is portrayed in fine details: discarded oil paintings, a smashed up TV, crumpled cards from the ‘80s version of Trivial Pursuits, stubbed out fags and a rusty fridge.
We’re reminded how close we are to village life through clever sound design by Stuart McCubbin. Strains of hymns and tinny, squashed tannoy announcements from the Flintock Fair escape up to the woods as if on the strains of the wind.
Almost everything about the character of Rooster signals ‘steer clear’, he’s dangerous, unpredictable and the man you avoid down the pub. And yet, there’s an endearing mischief and a deep humanity to his smokescreen of stories.
While his camp is the place where teenagers of the village grow up, dipping their toes into drug-fuelled independence for the first time, it’s also the place that keeps Rooster in stasis, never growing up, growing responsible or taking care of himself and his son. By the end of the play a change is gonna come. Rooster’s life of fun can’t continue forever. A broken man stands before us ready to face giants.
Jerusalem deserved the praise. It’s a giant of a play spun from the small details of rural life. Take your chance to see it performed with glee at Reading’s Progress Theatre.