sat 23/03/2019

Eden, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs review - thoughtful commentary on people and principles | reviews, news & interviews

Eden, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs review - thoughtful commentary on people and principles

Eden, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs review - thoughtful commentary on people and principles

Hannah Patterson's new play is based on a true story, but stands firmly on its own two feet

Strong performances: Michael Simkins and Yolanda Kettle in Eden at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs Robert Day

"It's gonna be the best golf course in the world," a man in an Aertex shirt and a bright red baseball cap is assuring us. "The best. I guarantee it." You can tell he's the kind of person who thinks talking quickly and loudly is the same thing as being right.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, that's because Hannah Patterson's new play Eden, staged at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs by Matthew Xia, is based on a true story, that of Donald Trump's luxury golf course in Aberdeenshire and the backlash it faced from local residents. Patterson transports the action to the fictional village of Eden, somewhere in the north of England; the Trump stand-in is multi-millionaire Aaron Chase (Michael Simkins), and he's got an ace up his sleeve. One of his employees, Sophie (Yolanda Kettle), grew up in the area, so he's sending her in to ease the transition for the locals. Things don't quite go according to plan: local farmer Bob Brodie (Sean Jackson, pictured below with Kettle) digs his heels in, refusing to move out of the house he was born in. This is David versus Goliath, except Goliath has one of David's family friends on the payroll and is trying to exploit her connections. Even more unfair than the original.Sean Jackson and Yolanda Kettle in Eden at the Hampstead Theatre DownstairsPatterson's a veteran of the Downstairs: her two previous plays there, Giving (2016) and Platinum (2017), were critical hits. Eden has some lovely lines, not to mention urgent ones: "Just because something exists," Bob tells Chase firmly, "doesn't mean it has to be owned." The first half takes a few scenes to find its feet, which means that some moments (including a great joke about the Eden Project) get lost. But it soon hits its stride under Xia's steady hand. He's just been appointed Artistic Director at Actors Touring Company, but is probably best known for his brilliant revival of Blue/Orange at the Young Vic in 2016. His direction here is thoughtful and subtle, with excellent use of the space - although traverse stages are always tricky, and there are a few puzzling blocking choices.

Jasmine Swan's set design is simple and elegant: the stage is an open-faced cuboid, with driftwood floorboards and panels on the roof and sides that show Eden's changing skies. It may just be a lack of attention before the interval, but it seems as if the wild grasses along the two side walls begin to encroach into the space in the second half, popping up between the floorboards, perhaps symbolising Sophie's resolve to stick with her employer beginning to crumble.

Adrian Richards in Eden at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs Simkins judges Chase well - he's not doing an impression of Trump, but evokes just enough characteristics to draw the parallels without veering into caricature. A charged moment between him and Kettle brings exactly how dangerous this cartoonish figure can be into sharp relief. The rest of the cast deliver strong performances too, particularly Jackson and Mariah Gale as Bob's daughter and geomorphologist Jane, although the latter struggles a little with the lighter-hearted moments. And Adrian Richards (pictured right) is clearly having a whale of a time in various roles including Chase's put-upon golf caddy, which he absolutely nails. 

Ciarán Cunningham's lighting design is likewise pitch-perfect, and really comes into its own in a lovely scene between Sophie and Jane, their faces illuminated by the soft blue sky above. This is in many ways the heart of the play, and Kettle and Gale capture the two characters' tentative attempts at regaining intimacy beautifully. From one angle, Eden is about how people relate to one another - or don't. "I don't care about people," Chase spits at Sophie late in the second act, on the verge of stamping his foot like a two-year-old. But she's got the measure of him; he cares about people, and what they think of him, more than anything. Why else would he pump millions into the world's best golf course?

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