Sunday, 3 May 2015

Review: Chicken Dust at Curve Leicester.

Ben Weatherill's Chicken Dust is the 2015 winner of the Curve Leicester's Playwriting Competition and was originally shown as a staged reading at the Finborough Theatre in a festival for Finborough playwrights. The ninety minute play at Curve marks the full length début of Weatherill's East Midlands based drama. It is a highlight in Curve's excellent Inside Out Festival of new theatre work. If this showing is a good indicator of creative talent then Weatherhill has a fine future in dramatic writing.


Chicken Dust is tightly directed by Chelsea Walker and the new work is helped by exemplary casting. In this very close up studio based environment, complete with a grubby formidable cage like set, (designer Cecilia Carey) the acting ranges from very subtle to accurate and often moving demonstrations of emotions. The short scenes are punctuated with a variety of sound effects created by sound designer Ella Wahlström. These are acoustic variants on a mix of panicky chicken sounds underscored with an industrial roar. Occasionally we hear lorries going by. All combined they create an atmosphere of itchy claustrophobia in which the human story of workers at the chicken farm dramatically unfolds.

The story concerns the extremes of the chicken farm which is being forced to raise more and more chickens for public consumption and the spiralling costs involved leading the farmer into increasing debts. The other costs considered in the drama are those of the human workers and their stress levels as they try to eke an existence on poor pay and even poorer health and safety conditions. In a moment of almost shocking disassociation one character even says of the chickens “You have to remember, they are not really animals.”

The six strong cast give to Chicken Dust a deeply truthful sense of reality. They portray well the rough camaraderie of the workers often returning from collecting and ramming live chickens into cages to be sent to slaughter. We also witness some dark humour from the corporate end of the business in Alexander Gatehouse's portrayal of Oscar. Gatehouse excels as the ever smiling representative of PlusFood Poultry, sometimes comically so and other times chillingly as he assists in a dismissal of a farm worker.

The single woman in the piece is Val (Paddy Navin) who we discover is an ex farmer and ex con now doing the only job she can get as a worker at the chicken farm. Navin brings out all of Val's self protecting nature, her coarse expressions with the men and her gentler side in a superbly believable performance. Christopher Hancock as new worker Tim is a likeable character who wants to do well and is taking some time out from University to earn some money and help his father. Hancock is especially convincing towards the end as he fears his life is in serious danger from his unexpected actions against the farm.

Mark Conway steals the show as Razvan the young Romanian worker who is happy to slave away on a basic wage of £6.50 per hour so he can send money home and dream of going on holiday to Ibiza. His accent is spot on and he very effectively demonstrates a tremendously dark vein of gritty humour in the man. This is especially so in the scene as he and Tim return from working a shift, their overalls covered in chicken excrement, blood and feathers stuck to their boots and Razvan laughs at Tim for feeling bilious. A great deal of thought and authenticity has gone into the costuming by costume designer Sarah Mercadé

The two older men in the play, Russ the stressed and debt ridden farmer (Paul Easom) and Freddie the blunt and embittered long serving worker (Roger Alborough) are a delight to encounter on the stage. Both actors are utterly believable in conveying the inner turmoil of their characters each faced with unexpected and unwanted life changing decisions. This too stems from the strength and honesty of Weatherill the playwright's incisive writing and no more so than the poignant scene where Russ and Freddie meet at Freddie's home. The awkwardness of two men who have gone from being friends to being very distant is superbly realised by Easom and Alborough.

Chicken Dust is altogether, a glorious, thought provoking play with very realistic performances and one that definitely deserves to be seen. This reviewer was wondering if the ninety minutes without an interval would drag. Not a bit of it. It was totally engaging and sped by faster than a chicken escaping the coop!

This review was originally published by The Public Reviews on May 3rd  2015

Photo credit: Richard Lakos.

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