Theatre Review: The Cement Garden, The Vaults

George MacKay as Jack and Ruby Bentall as Julie

George MacKay as Jack and Ruby Bentall as Julie

 The Vault Festival is an eclectic six-week programme of arts and entertainment at the underground arts centre, Vaults, in the bowels of Waterloo.

This year’s flagship productions are an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, and this, Ian McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, brought to the stage for the first time.

The Cement Garden is a coming of age tale with a dark heart, set in the stifling heat of the summer of 1976. On the cusp of 15, Jack is the second of four children with an inappropriately rampant crush on his beautiful older sister, Julie. The intensity between the pair is compounded when first their father, then their mother dies and, in a bid to avoid foster care, they bury her in a block of cement in the cellar. As you do.

The two of them are left alone to play screwed-up-families with their younger sister Sue (Georgia Clarke-Day) and five-year-old brother Tom. Unrestrained by adults and society’s rules, Jack and Julie start to inhabit their new roles as “mum and dad” a little too well over the long summer holiday.

Young Tom is represented by a manky rag doll manipulated and voiced by David Annen. At first this seemed like an unnecessary affectation, the sort of off-beat idea that can blight more experimental theatre. But it worked well and the doll soon and seamlessly become part of the family. Less distracting than a child actor’s presence would have been, you believed in Tom’s innocence and his confusion as his world crumbled.

The Vault’s Library space could have been built to stage a play as disturbing and claustrophobic as The Cement Garden. The unusual two storey space under Waterloo’s train tracks is certainly made good use of, even if the resulting set is more imaginative and interesting than practical. Perched on wooden benches in the middle of the long ‘stage’, there were several blind spots, but since I spend most of my theatre trips in the gods, behind a pillar or flush up against the stage, I didn’t find this view as much as a problem as some might. Still the unusual set up is a little distracting and the amount of space the actors are required to cover meant some frantic rushing around that was at odds with the languid feel of the original novel.

Talking of the book, knowing the story well does blunt the sharp edges of the play. With McEwan’s taunt writing diluted down to its bare essence, the element of surprise becomes greater. But the young cast are excellent and bring a real feeling of suspense and foreboding. Ruby Bentall as the practical, inscrutable Julie and BAFTA Rising Star nominee George MacKay as Jack are particularly brilliant as the two leads and, while the original tension of the novel has got a little lost in its transition to this dark, expansive underground space, they deliver powerful performances that leave you a little winded as the lights come on.

by Suzanne Elliott