Time relentlessly passes. One moment, you’re tupping sheep; the next, you’re lambing them and hoping that you don’t have to put too many out of their misery. Vicky Featherstone’s direction of Gundog ensures that time flies by and yet is keenly felt. In a visually stunning performance of Simon Longman’s script, we watch years that pass in the blink of an eye and moments that relive themselves over and over, such is their importance. Or, such is Mick’s (Alan Williams) inability to remember, given the slow mental decline that comes with age.

Royal Court Gundog

Rochenda Sandall & Alan Williams (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

Gundog is a pleasant drawl of a play. It unflinchingly pushes forward in a continuous arc, Matthew Herbert’s compositions a constant undercurrent that reminds us how nothing stops the inevitable movement of time. And yet it’s so often a monotone of delivery that cleverly conceals comedy, tragedy and emotional despair. Becky (Ria Zmitrowicz) and Anna (Rochenda Sandall) are stuck to their farm in the middle of nowhere, the two sisters who remain despite the coming and goings from the rest of the family. Mum, Dad and grandad Mick (Williams) eventually shuffle off this mortal coil; brother Ben (Alex Austin) leaves in an emotionally turbulent fit, only to return to the slow, unwavering pace of life that seductively calls him home; strange visitor Guy (Alec Secareanu) finds solace in the quiet, away from the madness of an abandoned family.

Royal Court Gundog

Ria Zmitrowicz & Alec Secareanu (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

Longman’s mastery lies in the subtext, the gulf of space between dialogue that Featherstone draws out and that Sandall in particular is the master of exploiting. Sandall has few lines, but commands presence on stage with an unnerving stare, deadpan and fearless. It’ll be alright because what else can it be? Sister Becky (Zmitrowicz) is the contrast – a never-ending stream of verbal consciousness that reveals personality in its subtle inflections,

“Can’t do anything else so have to like it, don’t I?”

Gundog reveals the pathway to such futile resignation in its consistent progression. The language doesn’t delay, doesn’t sidestep the issue, but proceeds without variation in a magnetic monotone of sound. Just like Mick (Williams), much of the text feels like a ramble without recollection – but unlike Mick’s comic story of being stung by nettles while taking a shit, Longman’s layered text is a slow reveal of acceptance at the hand that you’re dealt.

Royal Court Gundog

Rochenda Sandall, Alan Williams, Alex Austin & Ria Zmitrowicz (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

The only character whose emotions aren’t dampened is Ben. Austin plays him as the cocksure, arrogant eldest brother, rebelling at the uncool lifestyle and desperate to make his mark on the world. As the pace quickens, so does Austin’s temper – his hostility is at odds with Guy’s (Secareanu) pacifism and it exacerbates the tension. Austin’s breakdown needs to be more extreme to break away from the subdued, reserved attitude that Gundog has painstakingly built up, but the brief flashback to the emotional, care free childhood days is sufficient to juxtapose the madness of the present predicament.

Royal Court Gundog

Ria Zmitrowicz, Alex Austin & Alec Secareanu

Does the family in Gundog remain in their purgatory through stubbornness, resilience or acquiescence?

“Land beneath our feet. Got all our blood inside it, hasn’t it?”

Zmitrowicz’s Becky is wiser than she realises. There’s a pull to remain at this farm and a pull to return. Longman and Featherstone equally pull you in to the story, one which doesn’t promise excitement or adventure, but lulls you with its unchanging metre. It’s the draw of the reassuringly familiar that make them all stay, just one more year.

 

★★★★☆

Gundog runs until 10 March 2018 at the Royal Court. For further information, please visit the venue website.