Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Olivier-winning debut The Pride focused on the social position of gay men across the decades; in Apologia he explored a mother’s complex relationship with her sons, and The Faith Machine was his vehicle for examining faith, morality and money. In his new play for Shared Experience he wraps elements of all of the above into one.
Bracken Moor uses the conventions of the ghost story to draw parallels between the economic strife of 1937 and that of today – particularly the apparent callousness of captains of industry. The play opens with Harold Pritchard, the archetypal coal magnate, dismissing his miners’ proposed compromise to keep their jobs as he prepares to close a mine.
Harold’s wife, Elizabeth, has been in mourning since the death of their 12-year-old son Edgar ten years earlier. When Harold invites old friends and their son to his gloomy mansion to try to cheer Elizabeth up, disturbing things start happening.
The play questions the bounds of our earthly existence and the depths to which we will go in pursuit of love and ideals. Though the basic story– a lost child’s spirit yearning its mother, teaching the world a lesson along the way – and the accompanying debate between rationalism and faith are laden with a certain dull familiarity, Campbell steers things into new and unexpected directions, examining deeper questions about the value of honesty and the extent to which lies can be justified for the greater good. This Kantian conflict reaches its head in a tense scene between Harold and Terence, the visiting friends’ 22-year-old son and Edgar’s best friend (and, it’s hinted, rather more than that). In a few short minutes Campbell undermines the play’s overall sense of familiarity, and at the conclusion the audience is forced to re-examine everything they think they’ve learned along the way.
Campbell is a skilled storyteller, with a crisp turn of phrase reminiscent of George Orwell at times (whose Road to Wigan Pier informs the play’s social context). His skill is matched by the creative team’s technical prowess. Bracken Moor’s profoundly unsettling atmosphere owes much to Jon Nicholl’s sound design and score; the play is accompanied throughout by barely perceptible sounds and music, maintaining a palpable sense of dread punctuated by moments of intense shock. Lighting plays a part, too, with Oliver Fenwick’s accomplished design subtly focusing attention and emotion at key moments, while the oak panels of Tom Piper’s set soak up ambient light to create a gloomy space full of dark corners.
The performances add to this sense of unease, with a particularly affecting performance from Helen Schlesinger as Elizabeth; she plays the bereft mother with a peculiar intensity, able on a whim to carry the character’s all-consuming grief to terrifying heights of seemingly irrational self-delusion. Joseph Timms is similarly compelling as Terence, whose sensitivity is quickly overturned by his disturbing descent into supernatural oddity.
The play is both ghost story and morality tale with a measure of agitprop. Campbell’s themes work in concert without dilluting his play’s central message: while we might look instinctively for proximate causes for grief and disaster, we can never be sure who, or what, is really behind it all.