A burnt out barn complete with animal skull looming over the fireplace, a circular saw blade sitting in the grate and its own personal mad moorland hobo with a hatred for badgers; this is the setting for Jez Butterworth’s new comic-drama The Winterling, which is currently playing at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. The expectant first night audience included Richard E Grant, Ben Miller and officiallondontheatre.co.uk’s own Matthew Amer…
Len West lives alone in the country, in a dilapidated barn. It seems odd then that he’s wearing a suit as he prepares dinner for his dog. But he’s expecting guests; he’s made an effort. The guests in question are his old associate Wally and, unexpectedly, an eager young accomplice named Patsy. There’s history between Len and Wally, they used to ‘work’ together in a particularly disturbing business.
Something is not right between the two. Their conversations, though eloquently enough put, are not natural. They are the conversations of men skirting around a key issue, though always aware that it is present, ruling both their actions. Robert Glenister (Len) and Jerome Flynn (Wally) – one suited and booted, the other in overcoat and leather gloves – dance a linguistic tango around each other, vying for the upper hand.
Meanwhile young Patsy, played with the enthusiasm of a young puppy by Daniel Mays, is an upstart in a game he doesn’t fully understand. Always ready with a quick reply or a smart comment, he is reminiscent of Pete Doherty on a caffeine overdose, though even Doherty would have to try hard to talk himself into as much trouble as Patsy.
Butterworth’s play seamlessly shifts between comedy and sinister tension without the audience noticing until it is too late. Patsy’s explanation of how he would have improved an Iron Age fort, which drew guffaws from the first night audience, subsequently descends into a terrifying question and answer session with an impassioned West.
A bombshell at the end of Act One leads into a second half where secrets are exposed and explained, the second barn-dweller is revealed and action has to be taken to bring about resolution.
The Winterling plays at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 8 April.