Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, October-November, 2004.
Milk-quotas, artillery shells, crop-circles destroying his corn, a son who speaks to aliens, a mother who sleeps in a J.C.B. bucket, and a daughter who wants to transform his farm into an organic nightmare of hippy proportions are more than farmer, Ben Handley can bear. His wife, Mags desperately tries to hold the family together; but when disease is at their doorstep something has to give, and no amount of curry or alcohol will help now...
Foretelling the devastating foot and mouth epidemic that ravaged the country, Fields Of Gold is a timely play about a neglected industry and a way of life that is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
thisisUll.com: For some time now thisisUll.com has been bringing news and reviews of events that are happening in Hull. It is quite noticeable that what is going unreported is what's happening in the near-by towns surrounding the city of Hull. A search of the Internet finds several places and events, all within easy reach from Hull, which may interest an audience starved of this information. In response to this lack of coverage from the mainstream media of Hull, thisisUll.com sets outs to bring a taster of these places and events. The Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough is a case in point. Ask most people in Hull about the theatre and you'll most likely receive a blank look in return. The Stephen Joseph Theatre, located in the centre of Scarborough, is a beautiful Art Deco styled theatre on the outside but has a contemporary designed interior that makes for a pleasurable and relaxing viewing experience. The latest play to receive a world premier at the theatre is Alex Jones' Fields Of Gold.
Fields of Gold is essentially a very funny play. Whilst the humour paces the production and is used as a mechanism to entertain, the play also has a serious point to make about the farming industry and family life. Set in the midst of the foot and mouth disease of 2001, Alex Jones explores how the family-based farms that once provided a livelihood for many have now shrunk to a residual in the farming community. This play portrays the struggle these families have to endure, merely to make a living. Ben Handley (Colin MacLachlan) is the current proprietor of Handley Farm, a farm that has been in his family for generations. It is the certainties of years of family tradition that plays-off against the uncertainties brought about by the impending disaster about to hit the farm. As foot and mouth disease sweeps through the livestock, Ben has to face up to the fact that farming and his family are changing irrevocably. Ben is forced to come to terms with the fact that it is his daughter, Jule (Claire Lams), and not his son, Jem (Andrew Turner), who is interested in the future running of the farm. The financial problems and the unpalatable idea of organic farming are only minor distractions though for Ben though as he also has to cope with Jem's preoccupation with aliens and cornfields, a deteriorating relationship with his wife Mags (Susan Twist), Jule's blossoming relationship with an unsuitable boyfriend, Dave (Andrew Brooke) and his live-in mother, Lily (Judy Wilson) who suffers from Alzheimer's Disease.
It's certainly not all doom and gloom though. Much of the humour in the play is derived from how Ben interacts with his family. The black comedy will have you laughing along before the excellent script writing reveals the serious point lurking beneath the laughs. Andrew Turner is excellent as Jem and steals the majority of the best comedy lines whilst the cameos from Ben's mother, Lily, are often hilarious. As the play moves forwards you are skilfully pulled in two directions by the script writing. Whilst Ben is essentially a decent man who is doing the best he can for his family in very difficult circumstances, the darker, much more unpleasant side of his character is never far from the surface, making it difficult to feel too much sympathy for him. Quite how far Ben will go to protect the farm and the price he is prepared to pay for this, both financially and emotionally, remains in the balance until the very end of the play.
Fields of Gold is a humorous, yet moving slice of family life on a contemporary farm that is trying to make its way in an increasingly uncertain world. The issues the play touches on are not only relevant to the countryside and farming. The dilemmas and issues that Ben and his family have to face are relevant to everybody. Nick Quantrill
Driffield Times: Batty granny and a son who sees aliens - it's great stuff! - Take a dysfunctional family - a batty granny who smokes weed, a near alcoholic father, a son who sees aliens wherever he looks, and a daughter besotted with her soldier boyfriend - and stir them down in a Cumbrian farm at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis and you have a basic idea of what this is about. Mixing pathos with shafts of humour and some near-the-knuckle language, Alex Jones' hard-hitting new play in the round at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre draws some excellent performances from the half dozen strong cast.
Judy Wilson as the eccentric grandmother, Lily must have thought all her Christmases had come at once when she first read for this part. She stole just about every scene she was in. Yet Colin Maclachlan as farmer Ben ran her close. His tortured, world-weary, half-drunken head of the family was beautifully played and the scene when he was driven to the brink of suicide was riveting edge-of-the-seat stuff. After a slow start, Andrew Turner as the immature alien-spotting Jem seemed to gather in confidence and the rapport he struck up with his batty granny was one of the more touching aspects of the piece. Claire Lams (Jule) and her soldier lover, Andrew Brooke (Dave) were a believable pair of star-crossed lovers, and Susan Twist did a good job as the harassed mother trying to hold her disintegrating family together. Colin Crane.
Yorkshire Post 'The Guide': Last year Harrogate Theatre created a play about an issue that affected the community, the foot-and-mouth crisis. It was called Silence of a Dale. This autumn, Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough is presenting a play that is ostensibly, about the same subject. In truth, however, it is an insight into a family on the point of implosion - foot-and-mouth disease, unlike Silence of a Dale, is almost incidental. Much like Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business, Fields of Gold deals with a family, which runs a business, each member playing their part. Ayckbourn -whose theatre is staging the Alex Jones written drama - used the furniture business, Jones uses a farm. Really, the setting doesn't matter; the business of a farm in Fields of Gold works merely as a catalyst for the self-destruction of a family. As an examination of a family unit, the crises, ghosts and family secrets within it is a compelling story.
In yet another impressive and imaginative use of the "in-the-round" setting, designer Jessica Curtis has brought a stage to the Stephen Joseph that doubles well as a crop field and a farmhouse. Set in a Cumbrian farm in 2001, Fields Of Gold brings us three generations who have survived on Handley farm - grandmother, father, mother, son and daughter. Given the trouble that some of the cast had in maintaining the Cumbrian accents, it may have been wiser to bring the drama closer to home. It is distracting to listen to the accents drifting in and out of North-West territory. The two actors most guilty of this lapse are the two youngest, Andrew Turner as Jem and Claire Lams as Jule. Fortunately they held their own in acting terms with the rest of the cast who were uniformly superb. Colin MacLachlan, as a father trying to cope in a modern world that is not his own, is a powerful presence, particularly when his refusal to face up to his problems - both on his farm and within his family - almost brings him to a bloody and awful conclusion.
Underpinned with a dark humour throughout, Fields Of Gold invokes the best of Ayckbourn's own writing. The journey taken by a sexually confused Jem for example, provides completely unexpected moments of pathos and the tenderest humour, helped along by a sympathetic performance by Andrew Turner. Fields Of Gold is compelling drama that is entirely worthy of its place on the platform of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Nick Ahed.
Yorkshire Evening Press: Once we worked the land, now the land doesn't work any more for so many farming families. The once green and pleasant landscape is changing. DEFRA stands for rural affairs, not agriculture; non-farming enterprises, modern industries, are establishing rural roots; fox hunting has been given its P45. Conservation more than food production, is the predicted way forward. Foot and mouth, that creeping plague of 2001, put another nail in the coffin of stalwart, family farmers: men like Ben Handley (Colin MacLachlan), the King Canute figure of 'Fields Of Gold', a new commission from Alex Jones. Jones has worked on farms in Worcestershire, and that personal knowledge of dairy herds and farming communities informs his bittersweet comic family drama, wherein he interweaves almost as many story strands as 'Love Actually', but far more successfully. Sheaths of corn stand golden as sunrise in one of the theatre-in-the-round doorways: a symbolic exit for traditional farming. Straw is strewn all around the kitchen floor of the Handley's Cumbrian farm.
Beyond the fencing the army is conducting training exercises. Grandmother Lily (Judy Wilson) has Alzheimer's, a condition calmed by the herbal relaxation of school-skiving, dope-smoking grandson Jem (Andrew Turner), who is having problems with locating his sexuality and with contacting the crop circle-spreading aliens. Self-sacrificial sister Jule (Claire Lams), with a first-class diploma in agriculture has her eye on an organic farming future and her heart set on southern soldier Dave (Andrew Brooke). For beleaguered Ben, the bank, foot and mouth and whisky are the wolves at the door; wife Mags (Susan Twist) has to absorb all the family and farming ills, with no one giving anything back in return.
Laurie Sansom's production hits its emotional straps, and Jones delivers moving scene after scene of rising, fractious, heart-rending drama and flinty defiant humour. This repertory run ends on November 20, but Fields Of Gold deserves to sow its seeds at plenty more theatres. Charles Hutchinson.
Reviews Gate: Though set in Cumbria, its farming background at the height of the 2001 foot-and-mouth catastrophe gives Alex Jones play a resonance in the Yorkshire farmlands around Scarborough, and Jones raises a rich clutch of other issues, both familiar and less charted.
Even without the disease, Ben's farm is doing bad business, driving him into a cycle of drink and aggression. His wife Mags could easily become a long-suffering stereotype, but Jones strengthens her involvement in later scenes. Anyway, Susan Twist is too fine an actor to stay in the shadows. She provides a depth to Mags' patience (and finds optimism there), often through precise, alert detail in facial and physical responses to events in the farm kitchen where she spends most of her time.
There's good work from Judy Wilson as Ben's mother edging into senility, dead set against her son, favouring her grandson, Jem. And from Andrew Brooke as a soldier temporarily stationed nearby, a tall figure whose love for the farmer's petite daughter Jule proves size doesn't matter when you're in love. But it's really in the young pair Jones places his centre of dramatic gravity. Jule (a vibrant Claire Lams, smilingly confident in her greater maturity when squabbling with her brother, showing serious maturity and moral concern when it matters) is a young adult forced to choose the farm she was born to and has lived for, or love. Teenager Jem's talk of aliens and speculation about the universe objectifies his sexual self-uncertainty.
Director Laurie Sansom balances quirky character comedy and the serious overview finely, while the straw-strewn circles on the kitchen floor of Jessica Curtis' set blend into the golden exterior. So sure is the production's touch that even a cello picking out 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' as a spangled roof lights up is magical rather than sentimental. Timothy Ramsden.
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