When Cush Jumbo’s writing debut Josephine And I opened to critical acclaim at the Bush theatre in July, the bar was set high for Othello star Rory Kinnear, who had to follow the actress’ witty and insightful creation with his debut play about a middle class family struggling to cope with caring for a disabled child.
Unsurprisingly, The Herd is poles apart from Jumbo’s one-woman show, but nevertheless it is full of bold characters, each of whom commands the stage in a manner that rivals Jumbo’s Josephine.
Set on Andy’s 21st birthday, Kinnear’s play sees his family gather together in the home of mother Carol, who has cared for Andy throughout the decades that he has suffered from his debilitating condition. As they wait for the birthday boy to arrive, courtesy of his seemingly incompetent carers, his relatives are visited by several welcome – and unwelcome – guests.
Like the writers creating works for the Bush of late, there is no absence of names in the play’s cast. Anna Calder-Marshall outshines her co-stars as Andy’s snobbish and nosy grandmother, pursing her lips in disdain and talking through gritted teeth as she strives to make conversation with her granddaughter’s partner, who, much to the despair of the comically derogatory Patricia, turns out to be a Northerner living in Brighton.
Amanda Root gives an energetic performance as Carol, a woman suffering from an unhealthy amount of pent-up fury, struggling under the weight of her son’s burden but desperately trying to conceal it with her fierce determination and resolute sense of maternal duty.
The male cast members are equally strong. Adrian Bower’s Mark holds his own under the interrogative eye of Patricia, perfectly capturing the transition from that first awkward introduction to the beginnings of a bond with his girlfriend’s relatives. Kenneth Cranham is endearing as grandfather Brian, himself not in the best physical shape but more than capable of uttering wise cracks.
While the performances can hardly be faulted, it is the relationships between the characters that make Howard Davies’ immaculate production so striking. Be it the warmth of Brian and Patricia’s lifelong connection, the intensity of Carol and Claire’s fraught mother/daughter relationship or the hatred between Claire and her deserting father, their exchanges bless Kinnear’s characters with a powerful believability.
An authentic portrait of the stresses and strains of a family that hasn’t had an easy ride, The Herd’s touching and witty journey proves an entertaining one, primarily because there is someone or something in this fictional family with which everyone can identify.