The Nest is a play for our times. It concerns ordinary people wrapped up in ordinary concerns – making a relationship work, making a budget work and doing the best for a newly born. Materialism as motivation – a powerful theme played out in mundane circumstances. Refreshingly absent of elitist notions, The Nest is highly relevant in a post-Brexit world but the production is slightly too dour, slightly too earnest to reap the greatest rewards.
The modest house sits on a modest plot in a modest part of the country. The exterior we don’t see. The interior is clean and tidy in that dirty, messy way – unkempt items are stacked or stashed away, hidden from sight by cupboard doors and curtains. The dank fingerprints of rising damp are smeared throughout. The couple sleep on a sofa bed. They have no “mod cons” but get by.
From your seat in the auditorium, you see a section of their home. Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom. You see the basic nature of their lives. Clearly. You also see nature surrounding their ordinary life: trees are strong and green and there is the sandy bank of a nearby lake. Modern cave dwellers adjacent to, but not in tune with, nature.
The first born is baking in Mum Martha’s personal oven. Both parents, proud, excited and scared, sit at the table to work out a budget for the needs of the little one. What items will be second-hand, borrowed from well wishers? What will be brand new? What is “needed” rather than “what they have these days”? Dad promises to work endlessly to pay for what is needed – overtime as a truck driver is his way forward. Mum tries to be sensible and frugal (or does she?) but doesn’t want her child not to have what other children have.
The ingrained (or perhaps inbred) desire to have whatever material comforts one desires without any true consideration of cost, either to one’s own finances or the wider, natural world, smack up against the needs of all and, especially, future generations. Individual needs grating against community needs. The power of togetherness, mutual bargaining, mutual aims.
If the pace is slow, the incidental music from P.J. Harvey is loud. Very loud and quite intrusively jarring. Perhaps making a point about modern film and television? Perhaps a comment on all those who commute while apparently aiming for tinnitus, with the music from whatever device is attached to their headphones, like lava from an earcano, spilling out and contaminating ambience? Perhaps.
The loudness all seems unnecessary. When it is clear that a character is skulking in the shadows, up to no good, why is it necessary for the incidental music to loudly underline that? Does Rickson think the audience can’t work it out for themselves? Have things become so common-denominator that audiences can’t be expected to join the dots for themselves, even really big dots which could not be anything else?
Given the social comment marinated into every aspect of the narrative, it is not that difficult to believe that these sound and pace issues are part of Rickson’s vision to make the play resonate, but it would have been better had that been clear (if it is the case) and not just speculation.
Rickson’s production is admirable in many ways. There is an earthiness about proceedings which is profoundly true, the acting is exemplary and the shocks are swift and sure. But, overall, it is just too long and there is a deal of unnecessary material in the early part of the play, at least at this funereal tempi, which holds back the momentum which, when it finally arrives, pushes you to the play’s finale.
Like life, not death, The Nest does not resolve itself. The fate of the couple who have reproduced, budgeted, spent, taken risks and gone to the brink, beyond and back, is far from clear. There may be hope in them there hills, but for how long?
I cannot recall a play which has made me think more clearly about the future the present day youngest generation have ahead of them. The Nest, simply and surely, ensures you do not think about anything else.
The story concerns a working class couple expecting their first child. With expenses piling, both parents push themselves to the limit to ensure the new born can live in the manner, and with all the accoutrements, that the parents believe are essential. Love is not enough; there must be buggies and blankets all just so. The father accepts a dodgy job in order to raise funds – and the consequences of that threaten their unity, shake it fundamentally.
Covering banality, skullduggery, horror, bitter resentment, suicidal grief and practical resolution, the arc for the two characters is huge. Caoilfhionn Dunne and Laurence Kinlan have no trouble with it.
Dunne is a picture of restraint and bristling efficiency as Martha. Her weariness in dealing with her job as a telemarketer is superbly conveyed, as are the pressures of impending motherhood and the fears she holds for her partner. She conveys the radiance and burden of motherhood with finesse and there is a scene where she takes her child (excellent miming creates the infant) for a swim in the lake which will haunt any parent, so brutal and arresting are her responses to the misfortune which occurs.
She misses no beats, Dunne, painting an intensely intricate picture of an ordinary woman facing adversity. Her wrath is great, but so is her capacity for forgiveness and kindness – and the practicality of Martha is intensely observed. It’s a really wonderful and coarse performance: Dunne does not seek sympathy, but she certainly earns it. She is exceptional.
As her well-intentioned but absurdly impractical and “monkey” husband Kurt, Kinlan is also exceptional. He makes the ordinariness and unpolished edges of Kurt plain and understandable; but her never strays into caricature. Every movement is thought through, punctuated with realism and grit.
The section where Kurt, diminished to utter worthlessness by his own hand, seeks to replicate the horror he has unleashed on his innocent newborn upon himself is truly shocking – as difficult a sequence to watch in a play as any I can remember. Riven in pain, Kurt inflicts more pain upon himself. It is agony to watch. Kinlan follows that remarkable tour de force with a frenzied self-harm sequence which is knuckle-bitingly horrific and strangely comic at once – an almost Alan Ayckbourn moment of enraged frenetic awfulness. Quite wonderful.
Alyson Cummins’ set and costume design is spot on; everything is pitched to the right level, both for the domestic drama that unfolds and the wider social commentary which underpins everything. Lighting from Zia Holly is smart and precise; you can feel the grime in the light.
There is something punishing about the overall effect of Rickson’s version of The Nest. Some judicious cutting, some sparkier pacing, some lessening of the musical oppression – all would result in a greater whole. Nevertheless, the lesson of the play is well learnt and in Dunne and Kinlan one can enjoy two of the finest, most superbly calibrated performances London has seen in some time.
Worthwhile theatre that will leave you thinking. Hard.