YORKSHIRE countryside shapes lives, from Wuthering Heights to All Creatures Great And Small, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country to…Mark Stratton’s debut thriller drama for Esk Valley Theatre, his moorland home for nigh on 20 years.
“The presence of the North York Moors looms large in the play,” said EVT’s director in his CharlesHutchPress interview.
Londoners Danny and Jen Stevens (Dominic Rye, Clara Darcy) have had to hurry north to an isolated cottage, finding little more than an echo, a bare light bulb, one picture at a tilt on the wall…and a loose floorboard that opens a cupboard when walked on. That quirk will go on to play a significant role…
Leaving behind a flash lifestyle, they set up home with the impermanence of camping equipment: fold-out beds, a small table and misbehaving fold-up chairs. Needs must, but what was the reason for the midnight flit? Only Danny knows why.
In the presence of Darcy’s Jen, Rye’s Danny is reassuring, jack the lad, everything will be OK. Alone, he is as twitchy as a malfunctioning kettle (or that cupboard door), on the lookout, because everything could be KO, not OK.
The clue is in the title: deals and deceptions are afoot, dark deeds at work, dark forces at play. Not wishing to give everything away, let’s just say Danny’s deals may not be as clean as the Yorkshire air, and off back to London he heads to sort things out. Only a few days, he says, in his latest act of deception to Jen. Before leaving, he will buy her a little runaround car, but tell her to keep her encounters with the locals brief and to the minimum.
Yorkshire, however, has a way of introducing itself to these incomers as Stratton relishes the chance to play to a home crowd with sounds and happenings familiar to us. The alarming screams of screech owls; peacocks from the neighbouring country house tapping at the door; the snuffling and shuffling of a farmyard pig. Not so much ‘introducing’ as intruding, you might say, but each one loosens the release valve for humour, after the initial shot of fear, as the truth is revealed.
Stratton’s cameo role, rooted in two decades of encounters with the Esk Valley farming community, is the very personification of Yorkshire introducing/intruding. Without invitation, his frank-speaking farmer, Wink – short for Winston – Towson, arrives at the door. His accent and phraseology are a mystery to Jen, but this gentle giant is a helpful sort.
In dodgy Danny’s absence, Jen makes a deal with God’s own country and begins a deception of her own by necessity, creating the new persona of a Yorkshire lass from Barnsley, as she Teaches Thissen T’Talk Tyke in a delightfully humorous transition to begin a journey of shell-shedding self-discovery.
This North-South divide is superbly delineated by the impressive Darcy throughout the resulting scenes. Jen grows to love the new life, bonding with gardener Jed Winter (part two for Rye), her blossoming summer of content as she takes up gardening. Rye is so convincing in this second role that at the end, as the cast took its bows, a whisper could be heard enquiring ‘where’s Jed?’!
Stratton combines licorice-dark humour with Yorkshire wit as dry as a moorland stone wall, and even knowing nods to Four Yorkshiremen stereotypes, while revealing a storytelling sleight of hand and a feel for suspense, twists and timing of arrivals to recall the manipulative noose-tightening of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslighting and the intrigue of Peter James’s psycho-dramas.
The last “arrival” is The Woman, a suitably evasive name for Elizabeth Boag’s climactic cameo in Milk Tray advert black and an accent not from around here. A hit performance, in every way, just like Stratton’s debut play. Replete with deceptions, new beginnings, intrigue, murky mystery, the joy of gardening, farming folk and a love of Yorkshire, it is the real deal.
Esk Valley Theatre in Deals And Deceptions, Robinson Institute, Glaisdale, near Whitby, until August 26; Monday to Saturday, 7.30pm; 2.30pm matinees on August 22 and 24. Box office: 01947 897587 or eskvalleytheatre.co.uk, 10.30am to 1pm; 3.30pm to 7.15pm.