REVIEW: Rory Kinnear’s “The Herd” at Woodley Theatre

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The Herd (Woodley Theatre 24th - 28th September)
The Herd (Woodley Theatre 24th - 28th September)

James Bond actor’s stage play leaves us shaken…but does it also leave us stirred?

  • Stars (out of 5)– 4
  • One-sentence review– Does justice to carers by proving that they handle crises more severe than James Bond has ever faced.
  • For people who– have been to one of “those” family gatherings where all hell broke loose.
  • Not for people who– cry at the memory of “those” family gatherings.
  • Would Alan Bennett like it?– Yes

 What would happen to your personality if, for 21 years, you couldn’t hear the phone ringing without wondering whether someone was calling to say your son had died?

 This is the question posed by “The Herd”, a 2014 play by Rory Kinnear (Bill Tanner from the recent Bond films).

Carol (Chris Moran) prepares to celebrate the 21stbirthday of her son Andy, whose severe disability has left him with the mental age of a 10 month old child. Although he lives in a care home, she is forever dropping everything to visit him in hospital, attend wheelchair fittings, or check that his care assistants are administering the right medication.

 It’s a stressful and unsustainable position – something her parents Patricia (Linda Bostock) and Brian (Philip Scott) are keen to impress upon her daughter Claire (Sarah Pearce) when they arrive for the party, urging her to help Carol forge a new life away from her son. But with Andy terminally ill and running late for his own party, their advice only increases the tension – until the doorbell rings. Has Andy arrived at last?

No! It’s Ian (Marc Reid), Carol’s ex-husband who fled the house when the stress of playing father proved too much and now, 10 years later, wants to make up for lost time. And with the imminent arrival of Claire’s new boyfriend adding further stress to the mix, we start to wonder whether Carol’s sanity will survive the party…

  Maybe this sounds like a gloomy play? Maybe it should. Life as a carer isn’t a Neil Simon play, you see. It’s lonely and brutal. Your life becomes secondary to the person you’re caring for; a person who may no longer even know who you are, let alone how much you’ve sacrificed for them. You cannot rely on support from the system, the attentiveness of people who are paid to help, or the understanding of those around you.

But in real life, the light amongst the gloom (and the reason why people subject themselves to this role) is the selflessness and love which drives people to be carers.

The play didn’t quite capture this for me, which didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it on the whole but which felt like a missed opportunity.

  Chris Moran’s portrayal of Carol definitely captures the ugly side of being a carer. The script gives her many moments of shouting and swearing – at her daughter, at her ex husband, at Andy’s carers, at pretty much everyone – and it’s not hard to see how someone would be pushed to this when they’re constantly “waiting for the call”, which is an admirably frank approach on the part of the script.

The problem is that the lines, as delivered, lack the nuance or subtlety to suggest that there might be a caring person underneath it all. Delivered a certain way, shouting or swearing can convey desperation and exhaustion rather than hatred, painting a picture of someone cracking under the pressure they’re under but perhaps not meaning every word they’re saying (or at least regretting some of them once they’re said). 

 This could’ve made for a breakthrough portrayal, helping viewers to understand the emotional complexities of being a carer and doing justice to the carers themselves. However Moran’s Carol seems to almost relish the emotional abuse she pours on everyone, which makes it difficult to sympathise with her or believe that she would care so much about her son in the first place. This unfortunately has the effect of reducing modern-day Mother Theresa’s to the Aunt Marge character from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”.  You may feel differently though, and arguably the fault lays with the script rather than the acting.

However – the benefit of Carol’s anger is that it gives the rest of the cast something to bounce off, bringing light and subtlety to an otherwise dark setup. 

 Sarah Pierce’s daughter Claire is a model of someone always on the defensive, wanting love but afraid of having it stolen from her the second she relaxes. Linda Bostok’s Patricia is the mother who’s always ready to give advice and fight our battles, but perhaps not the ones we need them to fight. And Marc Reid’s ex-husband Ian takes the unlikeable stereotype of “man who ran away when the going got tough” and, in his anguished delivery, helps us understand why he fled in the first place. “Sometimes I wanted my own son to die”, he confesses, “and in the end I got tired of feeling like an arsehole”. 

 The real stars of the show, though, are Philip Scott’s grandfather Brian – ready to puncture any moment of tension with a shouted “I need a hand getting up!”– and Claire’s new boyfriend Mark (Andrew Smith), dropping by to be introduced to the family. Not only do the family’s reactions to his accent (“He’s from up north?!”) and job as a performance poet (“Why do they need to be spoken, rather than read?”) ring true, they bring much-needed humour; it is, frequently, a funny play.

 Ultimately their stoicism and willingness to stand by their family in the shadow of tragedy provide the emotional backbone to the piece, giving us some hope that whatever happens in the future, they’ll pull together to weather it. The beating heart of the play is a moment near the end where Mark delivers a poem about fatherhood and commitment – even after seeing the chaos of Claire’s family, all he wants in life is to be with her forever. 

 The set and props are a credit to director Frank Kaye and the production team – homely but miss-matched, Carol’s house feels both lived in and assembled by someone who was too busy arranging care calls to think about Feng Shui…

 …while Woodley Theatre itself should be proud for shining an honest and unflinching light on a little-covered topic. Other local theatres may stage large-scale takes on classic plays, or edgy contemporary material, and these things all have a place on the stage – but ultimately community theatre should be for the community. With recent reports highlighting the growing levels of isolation from society experienced by millions of carers, Woodley helps us take a step towards bridging that gap.

“The Herd” runs from the 24th– 28thSeptember at Woodley Theatre, with tickets available at http://www.woodleytheatre.org/2019-programme.html.

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