Common theatre review: Anne-Marie Duff stars in a new play about England’s lost land ★★

Duff is superb but this new play at the National leaves Nick Wells scratching his head

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The National Theatre’s new play set during the Industrial Revolution is anything but common.

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Anne-Marie Duff plays Mary, a darkly mischievous purveyor of untruths and fakery. Returning from a London in thrall to the amoral mechanised age, she finds the common land of her rural home threatened by enclosure – the privatisation of once public areas. An orphan, she seeks out her brother and sister, King and Laura, who believe her to have drowned. She slowly works her vulgar claws into the community, attempting to ingratiate herself with the boorish labourers and pompous local lord with her sharp tongue and even sharper showmanship.

From there, this new play by DC Moore unravels into seemingly unrelated threads that are under-served and, by and large, difficult to follow. The language doesn’t help. Clunky archaic English is interspersed with arbitrary modernisms, and some creative swearing that soon becomes tiresome because it’s overused. But the main problem is that the rationale of the servants, workers and commonfolk is oblique. Ideas are introduced, fleetingly explored, but then disappear into the spiralling circle of dirt upon which they unfold. Nowhere more so than in the case of the central character. 

Mary purports to want to rekindle a romantic relationship with Laura, the history of which is never explained, while also suggesting that her sister shares an illicit incestuous desire with her brother. She also has a disquieting proclivity for random sexual advances on the young and vulnerable, which is also left unjustified. You’re led to believe she’s a complete con artist, but suddenly she reams off others’ private thoughts, which she couldn’t possibly know unless she was a genuine psychic.

Then there’s the animatronic talking crow and the murderous pagan-esque cult who give the impression of having been taken straight from The Wicker Man, sacrificing yokels without rhyme nor reason.

The one consistent thread that runs throughout is Mary’s deliberate endeavour to stir up trouble. But you’re left completely at a loss as to what motivation she has for mysteriously reappearing after any number of years to engineer violent quarrels among the townsfolk. It’s briefly hinted that she may be the devil incarnate, but that feels like a wholly unsatisfying and glib deus ex machina, and an explanation that raises more questions than it answers. 

Despite the flaws in the narrative, the cast have to be applauded for making the absolute best of it, and the performances can’t be faulted. Anne-Marie Duff is perfectly watchable – lively and intriguing – and her asides direct to the audience à la Frank Underwood are wonderfully conspiratorial. Cush Jumbo and Tim McMullan are both very entertaining as Laura and the Lord respectively. 

Unfortunately it’s the plot that gets lost in this play about the commoners of England’s lost land, leaving your understanding as sparse as the dirt stage. 

Common is at the National Theatre until 5 August


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