The beginning of Reclaimed, Wassail Theatre Company’s devised response to the extensive flooding that devastated the Somerset Levels in 2013/14, is lovely. We are all sitting on plastic chairs in the hall of a primary school in Chew Stoke. Performer Nick White introduces us to the fiction of the show – emphasising that it is a fiction, set in the imaginary village of Newton Fitzbarrow, he lays out guidelines and explains what signals the beginning and the end. This simple touch is one of the most beguiling moments of the evening. It feels like we were invited into the same space of play as the actors, simultaneously believing in and contributing to the fiction.
This blurring is shown most effectively in some of the more gentle moments of audience participation. Enthusiastic volunteers naturally reply to open-ended questions, and one of the group joins in a respectful toast. There are some moments of more forced participation, which work less well – picking on audience members to ask questions and a joint boxercise session both allowed common anxieties and uncertainties to return – but, overall, the setting and the actors create a real feeling of camaraderie.
The ease with which the performers interact with the audience is one of the major factors in this. Two of the standout cast members, in completely different ways, are Alys Metcalf, quiet and understatedly awkward as the distrusted representative of the Environmental Agency, and Jac Husebo as the brash, fast-talking, hilarious Tyler. Lizzie Stables smoothly pulls off the task of leading the show as Charlie, the organiser of the village hall committee, often having to provide context and herd the audience at the same time as following her own story. The fact that we are with her every step of the way is to her credit.
However, there are moments in the play when performances drift a little too much into exaggeration and cliché, with emotions appearing from nowhere or lines being played a little too broadly. This is in keeping with the show as a whole, which masterfully creates a situation and atmosphere, and then seems to not be entirely sure what to do with it. It feels like the show uses the space it creates as a laboratory to try out a whole range of ideas – touching briefly on loss, territorialism, sexism, alcohol and racism.
Sometimes this works really well, with the sudden appearance and disappearance of issues feeling like the natural result of heightened tensions, but a couple of moments are either undeserved or underexplored – a monologue of deep personal revelation feels sudden and out of place from a recently arrived charity worker, for example. It also means that towards the end, Reclaimed begins to drag, and its structure fails to maintain the momentum that its touching and knotty climax deserves.
Despite this, here is a project that does something really interesting with place and audience interaction, and for the most part does it well. If you can brave the winding country roads that lead to any of the rural, West Country locations it’s playing, you should.
Reclaimed is on tour until February 10th. For more details, click here.