Review: Fen

Joe Richards 2 March 2017

I have never been to the Fens, but after seeing this show, in a way, I almost felt like I had. In many ways, it felt like a journey into a wild place – overwhelming and foreign at first, but you slowly get to know it, and at the end, you don’t want to leave.

Fen was devised from a collection of short stories by Daisy Johnson that are set in, and encapsulate the fenland of East Anglia – which seems to be a dark, dull place where fantastical stories emerge that toe the line between reality and fiction. There is a house that swallowed a girl out of jealousy, foxes that steal people’s souls and an albatross that comes to visit a pregnant woman. But the astonishing part is that because of the excellent writing and delivery, these never feel like fairy-tales. The dialogue and its structure felt organic, and light and funny in the best moments: it didn’t feel like unconnected short stories to me. But it didn’t really feel like a play in the traditional sense either; it felt more real, more exposed and less like an exposé.

The actors switched between their roles with ease and still managed to be thoroughly authentic. The sensitivity with which the director Louis Rogers helped them to turn characters on paper into real, lovable, breathing people astonished me. There was a kind of intimacy with which they presented the atmosphere and character of the Fens, a place so vacant that it makes the mind roam into dark corners. I especially admired the versatility of Posey Mehta, and Emma Corrin’s performance as Isobel and as a bubbly teenage girl – both showed how many different and strange sides there can be to femininity.

In the beginning, when I heard interlaced voices and rumbling sound effects, I was worried that I would end up confused and defeated by the plot, but very soon, the pieces started to come together and the role everyone played in the story became clear. Eva O’Flynn’s costumes were not just sincere and personal, but also helped to distinguish between the multiple roles. The fragmental, open look of the stage design by Evelyn Whorrall-Campbell perfectly tied into the feeling of bareness and interconnection. A pub, a living room, a kitchen table, and a bed, all seamlessly faded into each other, interlaced with projector screens.

The video interludes by Frank Martin and sound accompaniments by Chris Lazenblatt were beautifully made and made the experience even more atmospheric and immersive. At times, they felt less like a vital element of the plot and more like an addition on aesthetic grounds, but that is ultimately a valid choice, and they definitely helped to make everything feel more personal and immediate. Lighting design by Ana Pluskoska managed to convey all of the different settings and moods while creatively working with lamps on stage. In the end, all of the elements created a unique, visually (and sonically) striking landscape. 

The dichotomy that seems to define the Fens – empty but fertile, naked but mystical, flat but profound, flows through the play on every level. It is the fantastical and slightly macabre moments that make it feel so real and authentic, that made me feel connected to the people who live there, whose lives are as boring and sad as they are full of spirit and adventure.

Fen as a production is much more than just ‘risky’ or ‘weird’, but it owns those labels. The stories could not have been told as truthfully in any other setting, which goes to show that sometimes, theatre has to be strange to convey its message. This proves that Cambridge is exactly the right place to be brave with theatre: there are excellent actors and creatively and technically competent artists aching to do new things, and we should never stop encouraging them.