We’re determined not to be put down,” says Neil Paris, one of Still House’s performers, vocalising a recording of director Dan Canham’s interviews with people who live in the East Anglian fenlands. He’s listening to it in real time via ipod and earphone, and his expressive eyes seem to channel the feelings of the interviewee.
The rest of the four-strong ensemble join Paris in turning speech to rhythm, as they use his words as a starting point for a hard-footed, spirited quadrille, stamping out the ground as if to make their mark. The rhythms swell and change and grow boisterous until a folk dance has sprung up. This combination of personal sentiment and earthy movement comes about a third of the way through Ours Was the Fen Country, but could sum it up; a piece that uses verbatim acting, lip-synching, motion and film to capture the feelings of a people whose way of life is now under threat.
We meet a roguish eel-catcher, a horse-trader who wishes the fields were still trampled with hooves, farmers, land-lovers and the son of a stress counsellor, who seems baffled by this profession. Snatches of movement either frame or take over the narrative, and are defined by a freeform quality that suggests the spirit of a time-lapse camera watching a shifting field; Tilly Webber’s quiet solo is tree-like in the unexpected sway and tempo of her arms.
It’s hard at times to see the value in lip-synching verbatim movement live, or vocalising it from a recording, as the cast frequently do. But in capturing the mannerisms of the people they represent, Still House seems to hint at an idea of universality and community. When Canham himself takes on the persona of the eel-catcher to lip-synch with a realism that is almost disorientating, you are left thinking not only of the individual but of the ghosts of the past who came before him, and perhaps the younger ghosts that may not be around to come after.
Their tribute does not limit itself to people either. Illuminating a tall wooden post, we are told about the erosion of the peat – “black gold” as it is called locally. This post, representing one that a fens girl used to leapfrog over as a child, now stands around eight foot tall. And it didn’t grow upwards.
There are moments in Still House’s piece that feel as if they may not have been thoroughly distilled from workshop to stage. But at its heart is a warm sincerity and a desire to celebrate and educate.