The Herd, written by Rory Kinnear, directed by Howard Davies and with a very fine cast, doesn’t suffer from the absence of eye catching names. Its subject matter, a family celebration of a special birthday, shows ambition in its simplicity. Yet, as the play started, I started noticing things I disliked: the mother was obnoxious, with a suffocating flat quality. The daughter – thirty three years of age – was behaving like a spoilt teenager. First impressions can go either way, but in this occasion they started shaping into substantial objections.
First and foremost, I struggled with the characters: the women were universally unlikeable, worse they didn’t feel flesh and blood. The grandmother was a formidable character, but she was just that, a character. The daughter was meant to struggle but came across as whiny. The men fared a little bit better: they were salt of the earth, perhaps a little bit too much. Wisdom came easy to them, even for the father who abandoned the family but still was emotionally articulate to know why.
The text had neither the simplicity of every day language, nor the quicksilver intensity of sharp wit. Good lines were signposted, I could almost feel the play slowing down. All characters talked too much, usually in circles. Genuine insights were rare. The conflicts felt unearned, the reconciliations too easy. Within fifteen minutes, we moved from raging fury to people talking about their party tricks.
In this context, the intensity of the performances didn’t feel justified: Amanda Root can convincingly escalate an argument but her look was often withering without enough of a subtext. Louise Brealey felt trapped in the busyness of the character. Adrian Bower brought much needed warmth and charm, and Adrian Rawlins and Kenneth Cranham brought conviction to underwritten parts.
All these comments make me feel guilty and mean as there is no lack of good intentions or talent and the subject matter is sadly underrepresented. But Bush Theatre is the venue that hosted Tom Wells’ The Kitchen Sink, and in a few weeks will host Jumpers for Goalposts by the same writer. The simple warmth of these two plays will melt your heart. The Herd attempts a story along the same path, but tries too hard and allows the message to obscure the characters.