Set in the fictional Devonian village of Little Curdlington, Whey Down South is a blaring fanfare to the quintessentially rural; an exploration of culture, community and cheese.
Every year the entire population of Little Curdlington come together to watch the cheese roll. (You know, that thing they do in Gloucester where grown men run down a big hill after some cheese.) This year, however, there’s trouble. Warren (Sam Parker) and his family own the hill on which this noble sport is performed, and Warren is thinking of selling the land – effectively putting an end to the tradition. When his childhood friend Jenny (Chelsea Vincent) gets wind of this she travels down from London to try and stop him.
The ensemble of seven use music, multiroling and puppetry to tell the story, all grounded by the backdrop of a cosy village pub. The cast – in a kind of post-modern Shakespearian way – are retelling the tale as a group of folksy minstrels called The Brie Sharps. Or should that be the Stiltones? As you would expect there is a never-ending supply of cheese-based puns throughout the show, each of them cheesier than the last. As each villager is introduced, they’re given a description as though they are themselves cheeses: “Gamey and intense… but crumbles easily,” or “Tart, easily spread – often accompanied by wine.”
As Warren and Jenny battle it out, we learn more about them and their ties to the community. Jenny’s late father was the Big Cheese of the roll, winning seven or eight times in a row. She has close links to Little Curdlington, but left it all behind for the Big Smoke. Warren’s family are struggling. With his own father unwell, and the dairy farm in peril, he doesn’t see much choice except to sell the land.
We’re left in the middle of this moral maze trying to figure out who to side with. And although seemingly about as twee as an episode of the Archers, the story raises some profound questions about community, family and our relationship to home. At times the script feels a little underdeveloped, with some slightly stilted dialogue that makes you think of Emmerdale, but on the whole the cast holds it together with energy, creativity and dedication to the story. Amongst all the raucous humour and punnery there are some beautifully poignant moments, especially those which focus on Jenny and her dad.
My one criticism of Whey Down South is that it could have pushed certain questions further – pertinent questions about national identity and British culture in the modern age. In its own quiet way it somewhat does this, but with its quaint rural setting and all-white cast, I feel the show could have done more to explore these relevant issues. That said, Whey Down South – although funny and light in tone – is laced with ideas about capitalism, farming, identity and urbanisation. In fact, there’s a lot packed into this smorgasbord of a show (including someone playing the spoons!) and overall it’s a fun, light-hearted and engaging show.
Whey Down South is on at the Theatre Royal Plymouth until 15 July 2017. Click here for more details.