Ed Thomas' play transfers from the Sherman Theatre over to the Royal Court in London. Daniel Perks reviews the dystopian tale of hope, On Bear Ridge:

John Daniel (Rhys Ifans) and Noni (Rakie Ayola) sip imaginary tea and sample absent meals while their home – a dilapidated shack in Cai Dyfan’s design – literally disappears around them. They are the last – apart from Ifan William (Sion Daniel Young) – in their village On Bear Ridge. Then the Captain (Jason Hughes), a soldier attached to the planes that fly overhead – the ever-present ominous threat in Mike Beer’s sound design – appears and all is not as it seems.

Vicky Featherstone co-directs Ed Thomas’ script with intricacy and precision – On Bear Ridge is a show where the narrative requires a variety of pace and pause, dense at times and sparse at others. Featherstone and Thomas understand how to maintain intrigue, most of all in those periods where the dialogue is so closely compacted that in less experienced hands it could easily be too hard to follow.

But it’s never difficult to comprehend the intention, the emotional pain, the turmoil behind the words when they’re in the hands of Oyola and Ifans. Ifans is the celebrity name in this production – he gives a stellar performance very typical of his acting style, with comedy pauses and short, clipped lines bringing the most humour to the table. But it’s Oyola who captivates here. Her presence is always felt, her expression instantly shifting between the pain of a loss that only a mother can feel and a sort of bemused blankness. Every reaction has intelligence in its countenance, every line dripping with subtext, depth and intent. Oyola’s sudden explosion towards the Captain – a quirky, edgy performance by Hughes – is unprepared and all the more powerful for it.

On Bear Ridge is simultaneously a slow burner and a piece of quick wit. Comedy seeps through the physical cues ever-present within Featherstone’s vision. But the subject material is undercut by a sense of pathos and loss – family members gone, communities gone, the very walls that they call home slowly disappearing. In this particular production, it’s most viscerally felt in Young’s powerful and affecting lament to the loss of his friend and lover, where gender is unimportant because it’s the sense of safety, familiarity that has been untimely ripped away.

Thomas’ script is at its most poignant in the current political climate, as countries seemingly withdraw past their borders and hunker down within themselves. On Bear Ridge is ultimately a dystopian prediction, and end-of-the-world kind of show where we must simply stand and watch as everything burns. Yet in the frosty mountains of isolation and despair, Ifans and Ayola generate their own kind of familial warmth.

★★★★☆

On Bear Ridge plays at the Royal Court until 23 November 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the venue website.