The front door wont open, so Andy smashes the windowpane in. The door still wont open, until Jen uses the key. In the opening moments of Chris Dunkley’s Smallholding, the central couple (Chris New and Matti Houghton) have already, accidentally, told us everything we’ll need to know about them. Back in their rural hometown after a disastrous stint in the city, now is the time to prove themselves, to show their disapproving community what they’re really made of. As time goes on, they do just that, but it certainly isn’t a pretty sight.
The eponymous smallholding – an un-homey hovel with a drainage problem- is a sorry reflection of the pair’s disordered lives. Andy is a self-destructive and self-deluding addict, whilst the somewhat stronger Jen’s endlessly renewable faith in him is her ultimate failing. Despite their dreams of getting clean and gaining custody of their infant daughter, the seemingly romantic task of farming their land becomes an increasingly Sisyphean one. There’s work to be done, but Jen and Andy roam the house like captive animals, tearing each other to shreds. It’s telling that we’re trapped in there with them – never to feel the fresh air, or see the green fields which the pair claim to love – instead, we get the hazy glare of light through filthy frosted glass, brief glimpses of rot-blackened parsnips and bloody bits of farmland animals.
The drip-feed of information is, at times, punishingly slow, but it pieces together a story of first love long since lapsed into long-term dependency, though the characters can’t quite notice the difference. There is plenty here to draw us into their world – like the almost-Beckettian bickering as the couple’s conversations, at first enlivened with a childish optimism, become excruciatingly circuitous, repeating and rewinding with amnesiac uncertainty. Time-jumps add to that sense of grim claustrophobia – a year passes, but nothing much changes. Jen and Andy’s plans fall through one by one, and their mutual resentment pools like acid in the intimate space of the Soho Upstairs, eroding all possibility of change.
As an audience, we cease to hope and settle in, instead, to witness this car-crash in slow motion. On some level, it’s simply dramatically unsatisfying. Perhaps because Smallholding holds so unrelentingly to its uncomfortable truth that love really doesn’t conquer all, a desolate air of inevitability stagnates an otherwise engaging two-hander. Though no doubt an unflinching portrayal of drug addiction, Dunkley is so intent on showing us the selfish, meaningless hedonism, the deceit and the disregard, that it becomes a familiar morality tale, unable to surprise us.
Nevertheless, Dunkley is highly adept at capturing these everyday cruelties and director Patrick Sandford never lets the simmering animosity overspill into melodrama. The somewhat sluggish pace is, in a sense, understandable, because this is no firework display, this is a sad bonfire guttering in the rain. Jen brings up abandoning Andy in coolly casual conversation. Andy, in turn, threatens suicide with the same despondency that he refuses to answer the phone. It also has to be said that, whilst the play’s relentless downward spiral can get tiresome, the two leads are continuously watchable.
It’s both dispiriting and fascinating to see two people so appalled at each other and themselves. Even as the tone is unchanging, New and Houghton find a wealth of intricacies in their troubled protaganists. Chris New is excellent, all frayed nerves and false hope, as Andy. When he lies to Jen, as he does so often, you can hear the plaintive admission of guilt in his voice, his speech constantly peppered with validation-seeking ‘yeah?’s . He can hardly contain himself – almost visible are the manic molecules vibrating under his skin.
Yet, if Andy really did explode, you feel it would be a black hole implosion into nothingness- because all he brims with is a kind of emptiness. Matti Houghton’s Jen is a different creature altogether. Despite her demons, she’s still present, still powerful, with a sturdy, commanding elegance, her only problem being that solidity comes apart all-too-quickly when Andy tests her – he’s the chemical that she can’t help but react to. Their moments of contact are the production’s highlights: giddy teenage fights and fumbles, with all the tenderness of an open wound.
The play lurches on towards its painfully predictable conclusion. The pair’s attempts to spruce up their home (and it’s worth noting Fabrice Serafino’s set, somehow beautiful in its all its perfectly-observed ugliness) are tragically ineffective, and interestingly, it’s these irreconcilable approaches to home-making most poignantly highlight their incompatibility. Andy prepares for failure rather than actively preventing it, he is absurdly proud of his solution for having not paid the bills – filling the bathtub with water before the supply gets cut off. Jen, on the other hand, is so genuinely hopeful that there’s a fierceness to it, and that sharp edge cuts Andy deeply. When Jen starts painting the door-frame a serene, sky-blue, he is wounded as if by an act of deliberate cruelty. Watching her like he’s watching her fly away, he tries all manner of weighted words to clutch at her ankles, recounting his heavy history of grief and grievance.
As the final scene (a muted, moving show-down set some time after the main action) further illustrates, though failure is the theme, Dunkley dangles the chance of redemption. Unfortunately, that ray of light comes a little too late to illuminate the pervasive gloom.