|How many theatres have this on their doorstep?|
It is currently a valid one though, thanks to the excellent Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. A fucking adorable theatre - or theatres actually, since it has a small main auditorium and a teeny tiny studio - which is 100% worth a visit if you’re in the area (for the lemon meringue cake alone, frankly), TBTL is currently staging Iron. Written by Rona Munro, of The James Plays fame, Iron tells the story of Faye, a woman serving a life sentence for murdering her husband, and Josie, her long lost daughter who comes to visit her in prison for the first time in 15 years in an attempt to learn the truth about her mother and her past. What follows is a fantastic few hours of genuinely gripping, surprisingly non-bleak, psychodrama and one of the most exciting pieces of acting I’ve seen all year.
Performed on the traverse in the aforementioned teeny tiny studio, to say Iron is minimally staged would be something of an understatement. Appropriately so, though, given the entire piece is set in a prison. The performance space (approximately the size of a couple of large dining tables) is cleverly used as, variously, Faye’s cell, the prison yard and for most of the action the visiting room. The bare concrete, harsh white lighting and prison bars at both ends of the space are simply done but very effective and the sparse use of props is distressingly realist. The very occasional use of music, such as for Faye’s euphoric dance of joy at the end of act one where it looks like mother and daughter will live (relatively) happily ever after, is an interesting punctuation that works really well. There is nowhere to hide in this space, for audience or actor.
The play itself is great too. Munro has a great ear for dialogue, especially ‘Scottish’ dialogue, and this piece is no exception. It is sparky, quick, earthy and real; dealing with the moments of humour as well as the (much more numerous) moments of drama and anger. The plotting is razor sharp; twisty without losing its grit or its grounding. She has created some fantastic characters too, not just Faye and Josie but the two prison guards who have much less to do but are rounded and interesting characters nonetheless.
This is Faye’s play though, or more accurately Elizabeth Marsh’s who plays her. ‘Plays’ is something of an undersell in this case actually because holy hell this is a performance and a half. I can’t think of a performance I’ve seen all year that was as exciting as this. It’s one of those rare occasions where you watch someone in a part and it feels like they are that part. And it’s magical. Marsh doesn’t shy away from Faye, a huge part who never leaves the stage and has well over half of the lines, and doesn’t shy away from presenting her as a complicated, morally ambiguous, figure. She doesn’t play up for sympathy or try to present her as in any way evil. She’s just human, for all her issues and problems, and this is something that’s not as easy as it sounds to achieve with this part in this play. Marsh owns this production thoroughly. It was a privilege to trespass into her world for a few hours.
She is supported ably by Helen Macfarlane as a naive but nuanced and fiercely protective Josie. Roger Delves-Broughton and Rebecca Carrie round out the cast as the two prison guards that constitute Faye’s social world, the latter of whom has an irritatingly wandering accent that rather takes the sheen off an otherwise good performance.
I loved this show. A lot. It’s as good as almost anything you’ll see in London but because it’s not in London it’s infinitely cheaper and has better cake portion sizes (huge). Should you be in the area, or if you fancy a break to the stunning Lakes, then you must see this.
Iron plays in the Studio at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, in rep until 4th November.