Chris Dunkley’s two-handed play for HighTide Festival Theatre premiered at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton in April last year and tells the story of a young couple trying to make a go of their lives at farming. However this couple is no genteel Tom and Barbara Goode in middle class Surbiton.
Jen (Matti Houghton) and Andy (Chris New) have been given a chance to return home and reinvent themselves as farmers in Northampton. We all have our dreams, but theirs is quickly shattered against a background of a shabby cottage and the growing revelations of their battles with heroin addiction. Their relationship has been sorely tested because of Andy’s ongoing drug dependence, a fact he refuses to acknowledge and continues to hide from Jen, until she is also dragged back into borrowing his needles. Their hopes and plans for rebuilding their lives and the future gradually disintegrate until Andy asks Jen to perform the unthinkable to fund his dependency.
Dunkley’s script and Sandford’s direction, coupled with Fabrice Serafino’s cottage that’s gonna need a bit o’ work like build up a picture of the squalor and decay both inside the building and the minds and bodies of the couple. We can all deceive ourselves of what we could do; Jen and Andy plan to grow turnips, raise pigs and sell their produce to local supermarkets. But when money needed to buy garlic is squandered on heroin, those bulbs can never be planted. Dunkley argues that it is easier for addicts to slip back to their old ways, no matter how long they have been clean, than to fight to remain on the straight and narrow. However catalysts can and do happen, although Smallholding is no happy ever after story, but a reminder of how addictions can affect lives.
Houghton and New express a whole range of emotions as they battle their demons and try to make their relationship and new business venture work. Andy shakes and forgets to put tea bags in mugs whilst clean, and Jen expresses hopelessness and love when deciding whether to throw him out or to remain with him. Her reaction to the request that will finally force them apart is painful to watch, and his declaration of being on the ninth of the twelve steps is equally difficult to judge.
Love does not always conquer all and not every addict will stay clean. Smallholding demonstrates that life goes on and we need to make our own choices, but sometimes even those are beyond us. In a space as small as the Soho Theatre where you could reach out and touch the actors, their lives and battles take on a far closer dimension than they would in a larger playhouse.