Harvest, by Richard Bean | Directed by Louise Fischer

New Theatre | New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney | Until 8 November

Harvest is one of Richard Bean’s early plays, first produced in England six years before his blockbuster comedy One Man, Two Guvnors. In 2005 Harvest won the Critic’s Circle Theatre Award and rightly so.

The play opens in 1914 in the Yorkshire farmyard kitchen of The Harrison family, where two brothers, Albert (Nick Bolton) and William (Jeremy Waters), are competing for the dubious honour of signing up to join the British forces battling in France.

It is William, the older brother, who goes to war and it is there that he loses his legs. He is the play’s pivotal character appearing on stage throughout most of the drama, which spans 11 decades. These decades provide a backdrop and document two world wars and numerous social and technological revolutions.

Despite this, we never leave the kitchen of the Harrison family. Instead we witness the changes in English culture through a rural window — the acquisition of horses and fields to support the war movement, the move from mixed farming to pig farming, the bureaucracy of successive governments, the rise of the supermarkets and the domination of the Economic Union.

If all this sounds dull let me assure you it is definitely not. We are not mere voyeurs here. In true British Soapie fashion we end up caring about the many conventional and not-so-conventional characters that battle to keep their livelihood and maintain their independence.

The talented cast, all 14 of them, sustain our interest throughout two substantial acts, and all the performances bring their characters vividly to life. It is very much a team performance and Louise Fischer’s tightly efficient direction sustains its brisk dramatic movement whilst perfectly orchestrating the comedic balance.

Bean presents us with some symbolically key figures and Peter Eyers’ rendition of the eccentricities of Anglo aristocracy is perfectly tuned and cleverly captures the manners and mores of the period. The historical scope is further accentuated by the arrival in the punk era of Titch, the passionate pig man. Benjamin Vickers gives a splendid, larger than life performance that totally uproots the status quo.

It is however, Jeremy Waters who charismatically summarises the essence of the Everyman in his magnificent portrayal of William Harrison, who lives 11 decades and still calls the shots. Waters impressively embodies and sustains the spirit of resilience and determination. Wheelchair bound for most of the play, he nevertheless nimbly manoeuvres his way through each crisis with a wry sense a humour. It is a beautifully nuanced performance.

There is so much to admire in this ambitious production and the dedication of the cast and crew is to be applauded. Thumbs up!

All images: Bob Seary.