Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, The Archway Theatre Company, Horley, May 2-13
Every now and then it’s fun to encounter a story where nothing really happens.
Movies like The Big Lebowski, Ghost World or Clerks are prime examples and have achieved cult status in spite of their weak plots and aimless protagonists.
These kinds of stories seem to be appealing because of the strength of the characters, the wittiness of the dialogue and the enjoyably laid-back tone.
Jerusalem, written by Jez Butterworth and first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2009, starts off in the same vein as these likeable slacker tales.
Set in the woods in rural Wiltshire, the play is about Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron (Gary Andrews), a former motorcycle daredevil and current waster who lives in his caravan.
Despised by the local council and most of the townspeople, Rooster remains popular among some teenagers (Abi Kern as Pea and Charlotte Lacey as Tanya) who hang out at his place to drink, take drugs and generally fool around.
Loosely structured, of course, the play starts with two council employees (Carol Norris and Ron Covey) serving Rooster a notice that are going to remove his caravan. It ends with his final confrontation with these forces.
In the meantime, Rooster’s young friend Lee (Rory Kingston-Lynch) is gearing up to emigrate to Australia, the other teens are getting ready for the St George’s Day fair and a vicious thug called Troy (Greg Field) wants to give Rooster a good kicking.
Secondary stories involve Rooster’s older friend Wesley (Chris Yeldham) taking part in the Morris dancing, an elderly professor (John Davis) taking psychedelics and Troy’s stepdaughter Phaedra (Sian Taylor) mysteriously disappearing.
Characters reminisce, bicker and joke and Rooster tells ridiculous anecdotes about his various real or (more than likely) imagined experiences.
On paper it sounds like nonsense, but it’s strangely compelling viewing, mainly because of the performances.
Tom Last is particularly amusing as Rooster’s underdog mate Ginger, a frustrated aspiring DJ who can’t get steady work and even seems to be out-of-the-loop when it comes to Rooster’s parties.
Olly Reeves presents a more confident character in Davey, an abattoir worker who’s content with his life, but is perhaps too nonchalant about being permanently skint.
Chris Yeldham conveys a strange kind of dignity as Wesley. He’s dressed in a costume that everyone makes fun of and, like the others, he’s got a bit of a drug problem. But, unlike the rest of the group, he initially seems like he’s above it all, holding himself high and even trying to give Rooster some life advice.
There’s a pretty strong performance from Hayley Rose as Dawn, Rooster’s ex-girlfriend and mother to his kid Marky (Keefe Dixon/ Noah Dunford). It’s a relatively small part, but during the time she’s onstage she conveys the plight of a mother torn between her responsibilities and her once wild lifestyle.
Sian Taylor also does well as Phaedra, an optimistic singing ‘fairy’ who reveals a kind of damaged innocence.
On the more comical side, John Davis is lovable as the eccentric professor whose knowledge and delicate nature make us wonder why he’s hanging around with this group of deviants.
And then there’s Rooster himself.
Egotistical, rebellious, quick-thinking and funny, he easily the strongest character in this production.
Whether he’s guzzling a mixture of milk, booze and raw egg for breakfast or prattling on about the time he met a giant, he’s simply captivating.
It’s an excellent performance from Archway stalwart Gary Andrews.
However, despite Rooster’s roguish charm, there’s something scary about him and he remains difficult to like fully throughout the play.
At first, Rooster’s just comical and the opening act, which is crammed full of rude banter, feels like something Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson would have written in the ’80s and ’90s.
However, somewhere around the second act the tone of the play shifts and Rooster becomes increasingly mysterious and intimidating.
I don’t want to give away the ending but there are hints that something magical might be happening. There’s talk of ley lines and possible rituals and Rooster demonstrates abilities that make us question our assumptions about him.
When people look into Rooster’s eyes they see...something. It’s not clear what, but whatever it is seems to really shake the other characters.
There’s some cruelty and violence in this play, as well as some rather depressing moments, but overall Jerusalem is a pretty energising comedy that gives audiences plenty to think about.
Roughly three hours long with two intervals, it’s arguably too lengthy and there are some moments of mischief that could be cut out and not missed.
But, that said, all the cast members do their best to bring us into this morally questionable world of drop-outs and misfits, performing the deceptively intelligent script with real commitment.
Well directed by Joy Matthews, the Archway Theatre team have set themselves quite a challenge with this one and the results are bizarre, boisterous and fascinating.
The Archway’s next show is Plan of Action by Philip Ayckbourn from May 25-27.
After that the company presents The Vagina Monologues (June 6-17).
Click here to find out more or book tickets.
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