Eels, as we are told in Nell Leyshon's latest offering, Glass Eels, nest in silt of the riverbed, biding their time and maturing until they are ready to squirm their way to the surface and return to their natural home; not unlike the questions and resentment of childhood and the shadows of traumatic events that hide in the recesses of the memory waiting for an appropriate moment to appear. Matthew Amer was at the Hampstead for the first night of a familial coming-of-age tale…
The Somerset Levels in the midst of an oppressive summer is a land dominated by the river. The common tales of eels link a community together while myths about sacrificial offerings to the river lay at the heart of this tale. Lily's mother was taken by the river early in Lily's childhood, and no-one seems to have spoken about the incident since. Her father Mervyn barely speaks at all, while grandfather Harold is mainly concerned with food. Harold is the voice of old Somerset, full of tales and stories he is eager to share, but unable to do much for himself.
As Lily approaches an age when she starts to learn more about herself and the world, she begins to think more about the mother figure that has been missing. Her ponderings aren’t helped by the sight of her father with another woman.
Like Comfort Me With Apples, which won Leyshon the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, Glass Eels is a story of a family firmly rooted in its Somerset location. The family live a frugal life – all we ever see them eat is bread and jam – and the gender roles are of a traditional persuasion; the men expect food to be prepared for them. At the death of her mother, it fell to a young Lily to step into the matriarchal position. In Laura Elphinstone's performance we see her grow from stubborn teenager, fed up with being treated this way, into someone struggling to understand herself and her past.
It is a piece ripe with imagery, from the squirming eels to the fly trapped in a pane of glass, held in stasis and able to see the world around him but unable to interact with it. It is not just Lily who is trapped, but Philip Joseph's Mervyn, a strong, silent man, who copes with adversity by blocking it out or shouting.
Towards the end of a touching tale, I did worry whether the front rows of the audience needed to be issued with cagoules, not for the downpour outside, but because Mike Britton's design sees the rising water of the river gradually engulf most of the stage during the performance. As a theatrical trick it is both impressive and pertinent, but quite how much row A enjoyed the splashing, I don't know.
Glass Eels runs at the Hampstead until 21 July.