It’s been some while since I performed any proactive genealogical research. However, around 15 years ago this eccentric hobby took up a good deal of my time and energy, and I found great satisfaction in being able to assemble, however incompletely, the extraordinary jigsaw that resulted in the person that is me today. There’s a suicidal, alcoholic, wife-beating shoemaker; a city gentleman, estranged from his wife, who died alone in a cinema; a royal lady-in-waiting; umpteen agricultural labourers. All these tiny facts have filtered through, and I know they are still not the whole story.
The extraordinary When The Rain Stops Falling at the Sewell Barn Theatre (commonly referred to as WTRSF by the cast and crew) pieces together, in the same addictive and painstaking way, lives across eighty years and two opposite points on our planet. Slowly, without fanfare or sensationalism, each fact slips into place, and finally we understand better (but never completely) who these people are and how they come to be connected. Complex, challenging, truthful and compelling, it takes concentration and commitment, from both audience and performers, beyond almost any other show I’ve ever seen; but the rewards are enormous.
Ginny Porteous guided her cast through this tense network with a sure hand and a clear vision. The extraordinary rain-themed images and back projections, the insistent two-note guitar refrain, the white furniture and fittings, the beautifully-painted postcards on floors and tables, all made wonderful use of the quirky space that is the Sewell Barn.
The nine members of the cast all rose to these substantial challenges – mentally leaping around between eras and continents – with aplomb. Every single performance was a masterpiece of integrity and skill, and it therefore feels (as always) disingenuous to isolate individual performances. However, I have to do just that in the case of the two Elizabeths (Jenny Hobson and Jo Parker-Sessions), whose joint intense focus and intelligence were emotionally shattering.
The play defies classification (tragical-comical-historical-pastoral). There were many laughs, some of recognition; intakes of breath, for shock or heart-sinking realisation; smiles of satisfaction when another piece of the jigsaw dropped into place. Like Airswimming, this is not a show for glib distraction or easy entertainment; it’s far, far more worthwhile than that. To refuse the opportunity to see it on the basis of ‘I’ve never heard of it’ or ‘it’s probably not my sort of thing’ is, to me, akin to insisting on eating nothing but English fish & chips when on holiday in some exotic part of the world.
When my husband and I returned from seeing the show, we (as usual) browsed around the internet for further information on this play that had had such a profound effect on us. We found an excellent review – a blog post in a series by Brendan Lemon, focused on the production of this play at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York in early 2010 – which sums up the emotional value: “…the unsentimentality …means EARNED emotion rather than the unearned, easy variety habitually served up by plays and movies and TV shows”. He goes on to say that “It is only sentimental if you think that loss of loved ones is a tra-la-la type of occasion. If you do, then Rain probably wasn't for you. For the rest of us, the production reminded us why we go to the theater.”
Quite. This is the second production in succession at the Barn that has come into the ‘unusual’, ‘risky’ category of ‘earned emotion’ – and both have moved me deeply, made me think very hard, and proved their worth beyond doubt over the attractions of a night at home in front of the tv.
Just remember: 3D entertainment has been around for thousands of years. It’s called theatre.