Review: Raw, miserable but also terribly funny – On Bear Ridge at Royal Court Theatre

By Joseph Marshall
November 2 2019, 10.25

Audiences at Sloane Square’s Royal Court Theatre will find themselves in an altogether darker, more tempestuous place during performances of On Bear Ridge.

You can almost feel the wind chill hitting your face on the inhospitable hillside central to the new, post-apocalyptic play.

John Daniel and his wife Noni are dead set on living in Bear Ridge Stores, their family butchers and grocers, until the bitter end.

There are allusions to some sort of upheaval going on in the world outside, which has desolated their village.

The sound of planes overhead points towards a war. Indeed, it is a soldier dropping by which upsets their functional, if bizarre, domestic lives.

The acclaimed Rhys Ifans puts in a brilliant performance. His John Daniel is lost in time but spirited and resolute that he will stay in his home come what may.

Rakie Ayola embodies a kindly, gentle woman who is nonetheless equally committed to staying put. She convincingly plays someone with a hard interior following the death of her son. Sion Daniel Young is a likeable and down to earth stage presence as the son’s best friend.

There is frequent dialogue about ‘the old language’ – a sort of mystical link to times gone by.

John Daniel is neurotic to say the least. He takes the audience on a guided tour of his mind, describing psychic corridors and rooms where he stores his memories. He is desperate to hold on to the past but feels it slipping away along with his mother tongue.

The visiting soldier is psychologically disturbed, breaking down several times. The play explores the inner landscapes of its characters’ minds more than the physical terrain of its setting.

Laughter runs throughout the show. Highlights include an extended comic monologue about the virtues of wearing pajamas.

Ed Thomas has written something raw, even miserable, but also terribly funny, which audiences can get on board with. It’s hard to fathom, but his production is semi-autobiographical.

I found the play difficult to follow in places, specifically when it broke off into tangential monologues. There is a lot of fragmented English too, where the players are reduced to single, meaningless syllables.

Clocking in at around 85 minutes, On Bear Ridge is the right length for a low-key, introspective piece of theatre. The bleak, meandering narrative is digestible, and the kooky cast don’t outstay their welcome.

But as the sun sets sooner and the winter cold creeps in, this is not one for people with seasonal affective disorder.

On Bear Ridge plays at Royal Court Theatre until Sat 23 Nov.

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