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Pastoral, Soho Theatre, reviewThe badgers are coming. And the voles. And – wait for it – the hedgehogs. Not panicking yet? Thomas Eccleshare’s Verity Bargate Award-winning Pastoral might just change your mind. Or it might not, for this apocalyptic black comedy, currently playing at the Soho Theatre, isn’t quite sure whether it’s the end of the world or just the end of a punch line. What it is certain to do is provoke lively debate at the next Green Party shindig.

Pastoral’s premise is the revenge of the rural, as nature fights back against the tide of man, Day of the Triffids-style (Curiously, the show is sponsored by Kew Gardens, presumably hoping to attract visitors keen to dice with death.) During a burst of unstoppable fecundity, high street stores become nests, roads are swallowed by swamps and trees colonise kitchens. Eccleshare and director Steve Marmion wisely embrace the lurking hilarity of fluffy creatures and benign foliage turning horror-movie villains, but, on the whole, are careful not to let this absurdity detract from the claustrophobic sense of impending doom.

A horror movie needs victims, of course, and Pastoral provides a helpfully trapped and generally engaging ragtag crew, particularly eccentric OAP Moll (Anna Calder-Marshall), chivalrous 11-year-old Arthur (Polly Frame) and eager survivalist Hardy (Richard Riddell). The sinister deterioration of the outside world is excellently conveyed by well-crafted exchanges and Michael Vale’s inspired sprouting set, but sometimes laid on a bit thick in the verbose expository passages.

The play’s greatest success lies in capturing believable reactions to disaster, showing confusion, selfishness, fear and mundane thought rather than grandiose heroism and the celebration of lofty values. Quirky, original, often surprising comedy grows out of this keen observational writing, as do several moments of real pathos, which will stay with you long after exiting the theatre.

However, Ecclestone doesn’t quite commit to either realism or a more poetic reading of events. He seems more comfortable in the former, yet there are several developments that are not remotely convincing as true human behaviour, notably the brisk decision-making of two parents and almost otherworldly response of a child. His forays into lyricism show promise, but there is arguably too much tonal experimentation for a brisk 90-minute show.

It’s also unclear exactly what we should take from the play, which tackles topical issues but seems more content to riff off them than argue a point; it’s reminiscent of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem in parts, but lacks its mystical layering and thematic dynamism. Nevertheless, the magnificent Calder-Marshall anchors it emotionally with her blend of storytelling and sense, naughty wit and quiet dignity, while Polly Frame, despite an occasionally over-the-top delivery, provides a touching counterpoint. As age and youth unite in the play’s most striking moment, Eccleshare lays roots for a riveting career.

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Reviewed 19/05/13/

By Marianka Swain

15th May – 8th June 2013
Soho Theatre, London, W1D.

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Production photography by Simon Kane

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