REVIEW: COMMON (National Theatre) ★★★

England, 1809. The country, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, is in a state of flux and uncertainty.

DC Moore’s newest work Common delves into this turmoil, mixing together economic and political struggles with the notions of sin and the supernatural and their impact on the physical world. In the cavernous Olivier Theatre, we are shown a sprawling landscape – a battleground of sorts between the rich and the poor and one woman taking advantage of both. A piece that is at times crassly hilarious before moving into tragic revelations and disturbingly brutal scenes, it’s a bit of a whirlwind.

Sailing in on the sulphurous excretions of London, Mary returns to the countryside. Adopted into a poor farming family when her own mother died in childbirth, she’s spent the last few years in the city making her fortune through hustling and manipulation. At a nearby inn, she discovers that the surrounding farmland is being privatised by a wealthy gentleman, known simply as Lord, forcing the local farmers and their families into poverty. Mary’s adoptive siblings Laura and King, rumoured to be closer than a brother and sister ought to be, are shocked to hear of her return as they believed her to have drowned years before…

Common is an enjoyable piece, though confusing. It has a strong start, with Mary’s direct interaction with the audience guiding us through the tale. She is cheeky, rude and intelligent and we instantly warm to her. Moore’s script is packed with clever wordplay, balanced wonderfully by frequent, glorious tirades of excessive profanity and the tone is initially fun and bright, which suits the politically charged story. However as the story develops, the atmosphere becomes lethargic, the energy nosedives and the strong themes of power, class and sexuality become muddled with hints of the supernatural and scatterings of apparent incest, all making for a rather puzzled audience. The historical context is handled well. Mirroring life in the 21st century, it exposes the blatant lies of those in charge and bemoans the lives of city dwellers.

At the ship’s helm, Anne-Marie Duff’s Mary is a real treat. Ballsy and charming, she demonstrates a real command of the stage and steers the story forward admirably. The sensible, duty-bound torn soul that is Cush Jumbo’s Laura acts as a strong anchor for the piece and helps us cling to the story through some of the more perplexing scenes. The musical score is heavenly – gloomy and brooding, fitting perfectly with the dark stage and serving as a continual reminder of the dank surroundings.

One of the biggest issues with the production is its unsuitability for the space (and the unnecessarily large cast brought in to fill it). While the immense stage certainly resembles the vast, barren fields, it doesn’t quite gel with the intimacy of Moore’s scenes, often involving only a handful of characters. There are also a few moments in the plot that are, perhaps intentionally, left unresolved. While this has the potential for the audience to come to its own conclusions, it actually leaves us frustrated and a bit lost.

Common is a clever piece that bravely takes on an ambitious range of themes but doesn’t fully weave them together. A fantastic script and some compelling performances but a few concrete answers in the story would stop the audience scratching their heads throughout.

Reviewed by Alex Foott
Photo: Johan Persson