The synopsis of The Cement Garden put
me in mind of two predecessors: Richard Hughes' A High Wind in
The narrative of Ian McEwan's take on this subject matter concerns four children orphaned by the successive deaths of father and mother. Fearing they will be taken into care and split up, they conceal their plight and take the kind of action that just might involve a cabin trunk, a cellar and two bags of cement. As evidence of their deed comes to the nose of the older sister’s boyfriend, exposure is nigh.
Velvet Vest's script was specially written for them by Anna Horsbrugh-Porter. The book probes some dark places: there are hints there, I think, of child abuse, and the relationship between older brother Jack and his older sister Julie is suggested to be far from innocent. Velvet Vest certainly retain the latter element as one step in the stages of transformation of our four children from a two-parent unit into waifs loose in isolation – although this is latterly relieved by the appearance of Julie's snooker-playing boyfriend Derek. These stages begin with a reluctance by the children to go to school, followed by a rush upon his sister by Jack, within him hints at least of sexual frustration.
The novella's juxtaposition of the banal with the grotesque is caught in the excellently detailed set by Jack March, more substantial than the sort of bare-bones affair generally seen in this venue, which sets off the reassuring detail of a breakfast table with Kellogg's cornflakes and the curves of the adjacent comfy bed swathed in pillows and cushions, against an angular box trunk smeared with mortar. This sits ostentatiously front stage, and later, when the trunk is put to its gruesome purpose, we're unsettled and pulled into some nightmarish morgue by a menacing throbbing, with red light flooding the stage.
There was very effective work here and elsewhere from Rhys Underdown (sound) and Alice Lavelle (lighting) who have ably supported joint directors Hal McNulty and Kitty Low in the quick scene cutting, reminiscent of post-1990 film editing style. McNulty and Low demonstrate imagination and a very good feel for the material. The trunk business is well handled, so are the rat-a-tat scene changes, and the cast have been directed effectively to switch quickly the physical focus of action within the playing space.
The drama is also served by first-class actors. Luke Malone as older brother Jack had an impressively single-minded look about him, but also demonstrated a wide acting range in that I found my eye being constantly drawn to him even when he was doing little or nothing. An excellent Luke Richardson makes light of the inherent difficulty of playing younger brother Tom, bringing humour in a King Charles II wig ("if buttercups are yellow, what colour are hiccups?") but also a pathetic dependency as the reality of becoming a girl is spelled out to him by Julie.
As the latter, Laura Henderson Child combines compromised innocence and what passes in this dysfunctional household for the glimmerings of understanding of the children's predicament. Abi Harindra is wide-eyed and surprisingly resilient, if not downright perky, as younger sister Sue. Although Derek's presence is unexpected if not unexplained – I may have missed something here - Tom Saer in suit, yellow tie and horn-rimmed glasses brings just the right burst of bustle and confident body language. Cesca Echlin has just enough scope, even though more or less confined to bed, to portray a mother worn down by sickness into a ghost of her former self.
There's a key scene in the play where Jack and Julie, in bed together, first hold hands, then link legs and finally she straddles him suggestively. There's a developing sexual tension there that's very well handled within the overall creepiness of the atmosphere. With regard to character development, of course there's a limit to what can be done on stage in an hour, but that scene neatly encapsulated my view of The Cement Garden: that it's a small contribution to investigation of powerful subject matter, but staged here by Velvet Vest with great commitment and skill, fulfilling the proper function of student drama of taking its audience out of its comfort zone. Strongly recommended this week.