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 The Theatreguide.London Review

On Bear Ridge
Royal Court Theatre   Autumn 2019

Evocative, moving and thought-inspiring, there is more meat to this under-ninety-minute play than to many twice its length.

In an abandoned shop in an abandoned village in a war-ravaged countryside, an elderly couple carry on, not just with the passivity of habit but in determined defiance of time.

If they do not remain and remember, then not only will the largest part of their lives fade away, but the world they once inhabited might just as well not have been.

The two figures are not especially heroic types, but playwright Ed Thomas makes us feel the heroism of their self-appointed task.

We are deep into Beckett territory here, but Thomas wears his influences comfortably and adds enough that is new and vivid to make his vision his own.

In particular he places an emotively resonant metaphor at the centre of his play. The man is evidently the last living speaker of something called only The Old Language, and his fading memory threatens the negation of a whole culture as well as a large part of who he is.

(It is not irrelevant that this play is a co-production with the National Theatre Wales and the characters are given Welsh names.)

And the couple also fight against time and false progress by burying their dead son in a secret wild place rather than letting his grave be lost in the anonymity of the war dead.

There are two other characters in the play, a dimwitted former employee kept going by the memory of his love for the dead son, and a passing soldier who joined the army because it offered order in a chaotic world only to discover it couldn't deliver.

They are, in a way, the Pozzo and Lucky to the play's central couple, putting their heroic stature into relief by contrast.

On top of everything else, playwright Thomas has a superb ear for the resonant line or image. Existential fear is domesticated into a vicious but resistible wild fox just outside their door, while memory is a long corridor with rooms leading off it that they have to visit frequently to keep warm and well lit.

The employee spends his days laboriously working on a jigsaw map of the world, and the couple have grown old without realising it 'because time fell asleep in the snow and never told us.'

Ed Thomas co-directs with the Royal Court's Vicky Featherstone and, in striking contrast to Beckett, anchors the play in a solid reality of time, place and characters.

Rhys Ifans makes the man not especially bright or courageous, but driven almost animal-like to do what he understands as his duty, while Rakie Ayola makes the woman more recognisably Beckett-ish, carrying on simply because she is incapable of not carrying on.

Jason Hughes as the soldier and Sion Daniel Young as the boy provide generous support and are each rewarded with a powerful scene of their own.

If On Bear Ridge has any flaw it may be that it is packed too densely with themes, ideas and images – I've barely gotten into the anti-war element, the memories of the village in better times or designer Cal Dyfan's effect of having the solid set begin to disappear as the main characters' memories fade.

But how exciting it is to encounter a play with so much to hold, move and stimulate you.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  On Bear Ridge - Royal Court Theatre 2019
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