Michelle East
12th Mar 2023

Playwright Simon Longman is not letting anyone off with an easy resolution. Secret House production at Kings Cross Theatre has assembled a fine ensemble cast. Under director Anthon Skuse they deliver a masterful performance.

Playwright Simon Longman grew up in the West Midlands. His observations of the practices and heartaches of small holding sheep farming ring true. Shepherding is at times brutal. Farmers face many obstacles. Some they cannot control and others that are the consequences of poor decisions. Both can be catastrophic. Farmers and consumers face financial pressures. Sheep rustling and butchery on the sly might be a crime but also a means of survival.

Longman has captured the characters and conversations of these rural communities precisely. It could easily translate to Australia or indeed any other rural community. His themes are issues the Australian community wrestle with.

Why do people stay on the land when life is so hard? Why do migrants leave their families when life will not necessarily be easier in the new land? Why are there generational obligations on children to continue the family farm, long after its financial or socially viable. Connection to the land and family are bonds not easily broken.

“Land beneath our feet. Got all our blood inside it hasn't it? All that time. Belongs to us.”

Director Anthony Skuse keeps the play in its original setting in the Midlands of England. The four act play has a non-linear timeline that Skuse manages by keeping the action and actors close. The four act play runs without a break over two hours. The decision not to have an interval maintains a tense feeling of claustrophobia. This decision could put pressure on the ensemble and the audience. As part of the opening night audience, this was the right decision. I was so mesmerized by the whole performance; a break of concentration was unnecessary. It would interfere with the play on the theme of time.

Gundog is an ensemble piece that requires fine performances from all actors. LJ Wilson and Jane Angharad play the sisters Becky and Anna who struggle to keep the farm going. Wilson’s Becky is sharp and witty while Angharad’s Anna is closed and resolute. The sisters are aware they are in a trap and the world is moving on without them. It is not so easy to leave when you have no other skills.

Saro Lepejian is Guy Tree, the open-hearted migrant they find wandering across the property. He accepts the offer of food and shelter in exchange for labour. All that is available to them is a belief that if they band together, they will survive.

James Smithers plays troubled brother Ben who returns to the farm after an absence. Mark Langham plays Granddad Mick who is lost in dementia but also aware his time is coming to an end. The unseen presence of the mother and father is felt throughout.

Any challenges the Kings Cross Theatre’s traverse stage presented were sorted by Smithers, doing double duty as set designer. Recognisable as everyman’s farm shed, it also smelled familiar as the lanolin from the fleece released whenever handled. Props standing in for the sheep were suitably miserable. Costumes designed by Alom Barnes were farm ready and timeless. Lighting design by Travis Kecek and sound design by Kieran Camejo amplified the drama without hysterics.

Longman has written an intelligent play with no easy answers but much insight into rural farm poverty. He has gifted the actors with characters and dialogue that in such capable hands is an acting masterclass. Highly recommended.

Gundog runs until 18 March.