Pride, guilt, class, and privilege. Matthew Parvin’s Roost, an entry in the OUDS New Writing Festival, portrays these very British afflictions with the ease of a duck taking to water – and with only a few mentions of Oxbridge. Nestling comfortably in the intimate Burton Taylor Studio, the set is pared-down, the symmetric arrangement of hanging baskets and flats drawing the eye towards the central arrangement of garden table and chairs. The chirping of birds sets the tone from the first moments as the past in all its bitter injustice comes home to roost, in the form of successful Danny Stanton (Douglas Grant). Returning to the nest he flew in rural Dorset, Danny attempts to make amends for his adolescent abandonment of James (Benedict Nicholson), a former classmate with learning difficulties. Danny’s gesture ruffles the feathers of James’ mother Eve (Maddy Herbert), hatching some disturbing revelations in a patchwork of flashbacks and increasingly fraught conversations.
Parvin has a deft touch with dialogue – rarely does it clunk, and the silences, hesitations, and polite conversational commonplaces are unforgivingly and deliciously painful. He has a natural feel for the comedy of uncomfortable situations, and these are some of the play’s successful moments. Parvin’s socio-political comment is earnest, although a little heavy-handed and overly explicit on occasion. Roost’s complex and impressionistic structure is a bit of a curate’s egg. The flashbacks into Eve’s past, signalled clearly by lighting, are particularly innovative, introducing an element of dream and fantasy. However, I couldn’t help feeling that these needed anchoring. At times, with their music and lighting effects, they felt like separate set-pieces, dramatic asides whose significance could have been developed to provide greater resonance with the present-day sections of the play. Ideas and secondary characters were introduced but not always fleshed out – this was a shame given the uniformly strong and assured cast. At times, I felt as if the play might have worked better as a two-hander; it might have focused the play and gave it a tighter structure.
Herbert delivers an astonishingly rooted and honest performance. As Eve, the self-proclaimed “rooster”, she commands the stage, whether squarely planted on her chair or literally taking centre-stage to deliver an unaffected performance of ‘Moon River’. In the beam of the spotlight, her eyes search for that something “waiting round the bend” which she never finds. Faced with Eve’s prickliness, the unrepentant sullenness of a woman who has seen it all, Douglas Grant (Danny) and Laura Whitehouse (his mother Jennifer) have perfected the art of the uneasy micro-movement. Tapping feet, sighs, low-key fiddling, and rapid sidelong glances create a palpable tension and awkwardness which crackle in the enclosed space, in contrast with the dead weight of Eve’s grief. Benedict Nicholson offers a sensitive and delicate interpretation of James, while Harry Lee as husband Derek provides gentle comedy with his bluff good humour. As an ensemble, they are committed to the ambitious script and its unanswered questions.
Roost is a tale of clipped wings, of dreams and hopes that don’t take flight, and of secret turmoil and hurt, yet it is no bird of ill-omen for this promising writer and cast.
*** (3 Stars)