Reading the description of On Bear Ridge, I expected a gritty, realistic show about struggling rural Welsh communities. And the show isn’t necessarily Not those things. But it feels very different from what I might have expected; if there was a kitchen sink, it’s been ripped out of the wall and thrown into the scrapheap, as mysterious and threatening jets speed overhead. The play as a whole might be about economic and social rural decline, but the more immediate cause for the closure of Bear Ridge Stores it centres on is the sudden and absolute disappearance of both stock and customers. The whole area is suddenly left bare as an unknowable war rages on, and the local churchyard is paved over with concrete to speed passage to the big city by the sea.
Maybe the best way I could describe On Bear Ridge would be as a Beckett play where the characters are fundamentally good people who actually quite like each other. Playwright Ed Thomas’s plot revolves around John Daniel (Rhys Ifans) and Noni (Rakie Ayola), the proprietors of the local store on Bear Ridge Mountain, as they cling on to each other and their memories in the dystopian circumstances they find themselves in. They are joined by their slaughterman Ifan Williams (Sion Daniel Young) and interrupted by a dangerous interloper in the form of The Captain (Jason Hughes). With its dystopian setting and absurdist influences, it’s surprising that the show isn’t that nihilistic, or at least the characters aren’t. Its central couple shake off fear and shout at the jets overhead, their chemistry and comic instincts bringing a certain lightness to the play, even when it trembles on the precipice of despair. Even the potentially catastrophic entrance of The Captain is met with a kind of cautious kindness. When he says he is ‘not what you think I am’ it seems not only to be addressed to John Daniel and Noni, but to an audience who could easily see him only as a symbol for the encroaching chaos.
But the show does not reject nihilism in favour of a kind of naïve, ridiculous hope. As Noni and John Daniel talk of their beloved lost son Tom Shenkin they seem to talk with equal fondness for his ideas – that the universe is a dark, cruel place, that human greed has always won out against compassion – as they do of the boy himself. There is something beguiling about the way the play refuses both despair and hope – it is a story of people surviving with love, but where love cannot help them survive, made all the more touching by the idea that maybe humanity isn’t inherently bad, but will destroy itself anyway.
This delicate balance – of melancholy and playfulness, of anger and acceptance – creates a feeling of limbo, almost numbness, that is masterfully maintained throughout Vicki Featherstone’s production. Cai Dyfan’s set and Elliot Griggs’ lighting work together to heighten the sense of isolation, the whole space seemingly encased in a lightbox which makes it seem like the rest of the world could not exist at all. As the walls of the shop disappear, the characters are left with just the mountain and each other, with John Hardy’s soft strings (inspired by duo Bragod) drawing out the mystery and gentle sadness.
Any sense of malaise, though, rarely lasts for long. It’s as likely to be interrupted by a moment of humour as a threat (with the trapdoor leading to the rest of the shop providing plenty of both). The language trips along to a playful rhythm, particularly in a moment where it is accompanied by the sounds of a knife being sharpened. As with many an absurd(ish) play, the plot is quite meandering, and it works well for it – there’s a feeling of waiting, without knowing what for, that pervades the play, but it never caused my attention to wander. It feels like the play is at its best when it is bouncing back and forth between the characters. In fact, it is when the play seems to enter Big Monologue Territory near its conclusion that it stumbles. Its expository explorations of the past don’t carry the same power as its earlier vagaries, which allow it to skip over ideas of language, identity and community in nuanced and interesting ways.
Still, as a play about feeling lost in a world that has changed almost beyond recognition, On Bear Ridge is simultaneously timeless and horribly relevant. Its mix of the mundane and the strange creates a perfect tone for a place that’s pretty sure it is on the way out, but not quite sure what to do in the meantime.
On Bear Ridge runs at the Sherman, Cardiff until 5 October, before transferring to the Royal Court from 24th October. More info here.