With its fruity language and references to gay sex, trans sex, disabled sex and characters ‘wanking off to Countryfile’, Village Idiot is a sort of anarchistic anti-Archers.
The curtain opens on a village fete with an offering of songs, magic tricks and a meat raffle. As the play progresses we return to this jolly scene to observe villagers dressed as sailors backing a Cher tribute drag act and a reworked national anthem sung as a ‘goodbye’ to a straw effigy of the late queen. These scenes of mini cabaret acts provide a framing device used to contribute to a story of how different members of a community react to an outside threat. The main plot revolves around a village threatened by developers working for HS2 and an open revolt from a handful of irate neighbours. The village is to be cut in two by High Speed Rail and the villagers have to take sides: to oppose or benefit from the construction.
The players are two families, one rich and one poor, and the houses of both are threatened. Kevin, the head of the poor household, is willing to give up his council house in exchange for compulsory purchase money, enough to go to Thailand where a ladyboy with big breasts awaits him. Mark Benton plays the rugged hard man with gusto, initially shifted off out of his comfort zone when he finds out his son is having a relationship with a man.
The big house which is threatened is that of foul mouthed, but posh granny Barbara played with stunning audacity by Eileen Nicholas – not so much an old bat as a whole belfry of them just packed with obscenities and vile pensioner energy. Her finest moment is leading the cast in the ‘You can fuck right off’ song. She is the decrepit matriarch of this disparate group of people which is strangely functional for all its dysfunctional members. She dominates the life of her autistic grandson Harry who is in love with Debbie. She may be vulnerable and have learning difficulties, but she knows what she wants. The loving couple pull our hearts strings as they fight their corner batting away people who want to ‘look after’ them. The roles are played sensitively and deftly by Maximilian Fairley and Faye Wiggan.
Kevin’s son, Liam, is mixed heritage which has led to discrimination by Barbara, but ‘it wasn’t because you were black, it was because you were a traveller. She was racist against your white half.’ Such ironic remarks are typical of the Ortonesque logic that runs through the play.
Philip Labey gives us a perfectly pitched performance as a mean-spirited grandson working for HS2 as an intermediary to try and get the final agreement on the evictions before the bulldozers come in. He justifies throwing his grandma out of her house with ‘If it wasn’t me it would be someone who really didn’t give a shit.’
The dialogue is slick and sparky and hilariously surrealistic, ‘he can’t go to sleep without a selection of pork’; ‘It’s the Lord’s day you shouldn’t be talking so much about bumholes.’ This is combined with some real social criticism: ‘If I were an animal there would be legislation to protect my home.’ There are also lyrical passages that bring to mind Goldsmiths’ ‘The Deserted Village’ with its foreboding ‘ill fares the land.’ Without giving it away, towards the end of the second half the play really does go to the next level with a representation of nature taking over, brilliantly realised by set and costume designer Lily Arnold.
The production was supported by Ramps on the Moon, a theatre network seeing greater diversity in the theatre as the engine for greater creativity; it certainly worked here. Syresham is an actual village in Northamptonshire which is on the HS2 map, writer Samson Hawkins is said to come from there. Village Idiot is his first full-length play, hopefully the first of many, this is as good as contemporary theatre gets.
Simply put, this is one of the best things I have seen in years – it is colourful, edgy and emotional – it hits all the right buttons and packs in a right-on ecological message amidst all the fun.