Robert Alan Evans' The Woods is a murky, twilight production, on the fringes of nostalgia and horror. Playing at the Royal Court Upstairs, Daniel Perks reviews this complex tug of war:

A dishevelled woman (Lesley Sharp) finds a boy (Finn Bennett) in her ramshackle wooden hut while a Wolf (Tom Mothersdale) prowls outside. Equal parts comforting and terrifying, it’s a surrealist world in twilight that promises warmth and despair. The Woods delivers on both fronts.

Naomi Dawson’s set is awash with trees, a barren and stark backdrop for the protagonist’s existence. Out of reach is the kitchen of her past (or is it her reality, her alternative?), a flickering memory punctuated by a baby’s cries. Robert Alan Evans’ script is less about the cause behind the woman’s mental state than it is about its aftereffects. Evans beautifully entangles the worlds of the before and the current – tiny touches of a beloved life lay scattered among the dead brush. Lucy Morrison keeps the atmosphere skittish and jumpy throughout, never letting it rest on such melancholic nostalgia.

Woods Royal Court

Lesley Sharp (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

From the outset, The Woods is awash with exquisite detail. Tom Gibbons’ surrounding soundscape is vast and all-encompassing, an ingenious contrast to the intimate nature of Anthony Arblaster’s lighting design. And this is but a single example of the constant tug of war inherent in the production – one that becomes instantly evident when Sharp’s accent intentionally stutters and fades. Her performance is at its strongest in the space between words, a transition that only adds to the suspense as the audience try to tease out an explanation for the current circumstance.

It’s a risky decision for British theatre to bury the backstory so deep into the narrative – storytelling is so entrenched in the theatrical culture. Evans conceals the script’s trajectory even at the end, a trail of breadcrumbs that never quite leads to its destination. But such translucency manifests as unpredictable intrigue in Morrison’s direction – even as Sharp sits with the Boy (Bennett) at the end and reveals her truth, there are still questions unanswered. Multiple explanations are possible, each one tender and affecting. The palpable, restless energy remains long after the curtain comes down.

Woods Royal Court

Lesley Sharp & Finn Bennett (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

Such intensity shines through in the cast performances too. Sharp is the central figure; her interactions with the Wolf (Mothersdale) are individually and collectively magnetic. Even passages of verbal diarrhoea are complete with complex nuance, a stream of consciousness instantly recognisable with her character. In many ways, Mothersdale provides the perfect antithesis – a sinister personality full of desperate rage, longing for control and submission. His versatile performance is a masterclass in unhinged manipulation.

Yet despite such an evocative aesthetic, The Woods strays dangerously close to losing itself in such abstract metaphor. As Sharp’s sanctuary burns and she descends deeper down the rabbit hole, Evans and Morrison pile meta-realities upon each other with swift fervour. The aesthetic remains beautifully comprehensive, but the concept starts to run away with itself. The Woods becomes an Inception-styled series of worlds and as such its grounding slips. Mothersdale and Sharp stay strong through such a shifting landscape – together they tread across uneven ground and keep it firmly under foot.

Woods Royal Court

Tom Mothersdale & Lesley Sharp (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

The Woods is an unsettling production, one that has the audience on the edge of their seats in anticipation. It pulls back and forth on multiple levels, never resting on its laurels. While Evans writes a thought-provoking, murky script, Morrison ensures that its impact remains long after the curtain falls.

★★★★☆

The Woods runs at the Royal Court until 20 October 2018. For more information and tickets, visit the website here.