The tourist numbers are down, the cab drivers are muttering, the recession is biting; and the small town of Newton Basset is undergoing change in this well-intentioned, coruscatingly earnest but ultimately rather puzzlingly parochial piece of straight drama from young company When I Say Jump, up here as Ideastap Edinburgh fund award winners. Joe the supermarket owner is under pressure from pinstriped loan sharks to reinvigorate his business, and the town’s men are poised to betray their fathers who made it a vintage postcard thriving British tourist town while retaining its soul as a bucolic idyll.
The motley collection of characters include Greg the phlegmy and phlegmatic supermarket announcer who in a neat gag has an accent so local not even locals understand him, and John who commits business hari-kari rather than see his livelihood disappear into the machines of modernisation. While the writing of the businessmen is sharp, much of the dialogue has a slightly laboured quality, and there is a strange Radio 4 touchstone in here that is almost reminiscent of The Archers. A number of scenes need the secateurs waved in their general direction to avoid them outstaying their welcome, while there is a slightly wearying predictability to the gently unfolding narrative. It is also unclear as to what is being lost in the transition – an idea of tourism, which is not without its own problems; some notional idea of planning; and an undeveloped sense of community symbolised by, of all things, earthenware flagons – and so the world built here kind of tumbles out, confused and hopeful as a birthed lamb.
Robyn Keyne’s folk songs are measured and sweet, and indicative of A Modern Town’s care to place the processes of modernization in a human context. But further than this, the clever manoeuvre at the heart of the piece is to make the flagon-supping, wassailing, checkout-slogging locals much more of a level presence than the culture of the incoming investment. The cult is not in the sticks, it’s in the language that Joe evangelises with “risks” and “vision” as he dresses his employees in identical blue, grasping at the bubble-invested sky – a vision that is sharper and smarter than NTW’s meandering The Dark Philosophers at the festival last year. Here a soulless League of Gentlemen all wear very similar suits; and in this young production, beneath the unkempt tailoring, beats a true heart.