Fen and Games

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Review of 'The Night Heron' by Jez Butterworth, Royal Court Theatre, London

Jez Butterworth's second play is set in the wilds of the Cambridgeshire fens, in a bleak world where the main characters have fallen back on blind religious faith to sustain them. The night heron in the title is a bird rarely seen--there is cash for a verified sighting--and like Godot in the play of that name never makes an appearance.

For Griffin and Wattmore, two Cambridge college gardeners eking out their lives in a wooden hut made of ships' timbers, there is the promise of a fortune to be made from a poetry prize. They enlist the help of their woman lodger, Bolla Fogg, with this in mind, but by the end of the play their hermitage of a home has been invaded by the righteous bigots of the town, who are determined to bring their co-religionists to book for their deviancy.

If this seems reminiscent of the modern classics of Pinter or Beckett that's because Jez Butterworth invites the comparison. He writes outstandingly well, well enough to sustain a mood of Old Testament prophecy in a play that is actually a black comedy. Like his earlier work--Mojo--all the characters have been damaged by the world and are seeking to survive on the margins.

The dialogue is powerful and accurate, even if some of the religious fanaticism seems contrived, helped by fine acting from Karl Johnson and Ray Winstone and, particularly, from Jessica Stevenson--a revelation for those who only know her from her cameo role in The Royle Family.

If there is a problem with this play, it is the one that surfaces in Mojo. The comedy, and it is real comedy, sometimes sits uneasily with the huge life and death themes that the author wants to address. However, Butterworth is a genuinely poetic writer who has the ability to invoke the most powerful images.