This light as frost chiller from Rob Drummond revels in the concept of agonising hypotheticals; those rock-and-a-hard place decisions most of us would give our right arm not to have to make. However, in place of edge of the seat emotional squirming, underdeveloped characters and an uninspiring staging ensures the dramatic promise of Drummond’s writing remains largely unfulfilled.
In an isolated farmhouse in rural Scotland, a tragedy-scarred family attempts to break the cycle of Harvest-time sacrifice that seems to be their curse. Sophia (Blythe Duff) summons her convict son Isaac (Andrew Rothney) into their lives once more in the hope his organs might save the life of his terminally ill daughter, Autumn (Sarah Miele).
With Grain in the Blood‘s balletic script, Drummond continues to show off his talent for generous and humane storytelling, handling the stuff of soap opera with a delicate touch, and wisely offering far more by way of questions than answers. The nervous atmosphere is supported ably by a characteristically empathetic soundtrack from MJ McCarthy, as well as Simon Wilkinson’s tantalising autumnal lighting, all stark moonlight and damp shadows. Onstage however, the cast’s success in bringing Drummond’s difficult characters to life varies dramatically.
Of the more successful, Frances Thorburn as Autumn’s Aunt Violet is full of arch anger and cutting edges, along with being the source of some much-needed tension – both violent (towards Isaac) and sexual (towards Isaac’s by-the-book police chaperone, Burt). It’s a shame that in the face of her rage Rothney’s Isaac isn’t more of a threat. The character is strangely underused, given his function as the pivot on which a whole family’s destiny turn. John Michie’s Burt is a warm presence, given a far more rounded characterisation than the rest of Autumn’s brittle family. As Sophia, Duff rarely betrays the grandmotherly love that allows her to go to extreme lengths to save her grandchild. The real revelation here is newcomer Miele, who gives a performance of heartbreaking nuance that more than matches the more experienced talent onstage. As a kind of narrator, weaving the happenings around her into a new form of Harvest-time legend, Miele imbues Autumn with both child-like hope and dangerous resignation. In her final scenes, as a resolute teenager wishing to take charge of her own life, she is emotionally devastating.
With a narrative so dependent on the unreal and the superstitious, Orla O’Loughlin’s direction is disappointingly literal. The characters spend a lot of time stomping around their one-room farmhouse, or sitting around the rough-hewn dinner table, trading angry words. Maybe too focused on the cut-throat practicality of rural living, O’Loughlin seems to neglect the ethereal side of Drummond’s tale, to the point where the family’s spiral into extreme action begins to stretch believability.
It’s an interesting proposal from Drummond, but underpowered characters and uninspiring staging means Grain in the Blood never quite reaches its potential as a psychological chiller. Despite this, it’s still a taut, atmospheric drama, diverting for a chilly Autumnal night, and a fine vehicle to confirm Miele as a talent to keep an eye out for in future productions.
Grain in the Blood is on until 29th October 2016 at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow. Click here for more details.