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If we take the view that exciting drama springs from conflict, Brad Birch’s two-hander Where The Shot Rabbits Lay has dramatic potential by the bucketful. Played out in the intimate back room of Kennington’s White Bear pub, the publicity promises us a tense tale of intergenerational conflict as – following a “messy divorce” – an estranged father takes his son on a camping trip, with the hope of teaching his moody offspring about the great outdoors.
The stage is set for fiery confrontations, mixed, perhaps, with a growing understanding of each character by the other, and we are happily given both these things over the course of the show’s hour of running time. Peter Warnock and Richard Linnell (credited only as Man and Boy in the programme and never called upon to use actual names during the show) give credible performances and command the stage and the audience’s attention, despite a sparely written script and some rather unwieldy props to contend with. Although they may not ever truly reach the emotional heights that the writer seems to be hoping for, this is less their fault than Birch’s. The characters are not developed much beyond the archetypes of a difficult, moping thirteen-year old-and a man retreating from society and civilisation and returning to the natural world he enjoyed as a child. A different playwright could maybe make more of this scenario and these people, but although Birch has a slightly irritating tendency to use repetition as a means of increasing realism, Where The Shot Rabbits Lay is a solid sophomore effort that hints at greater things on the horizon.
When there are only two people on stage, it becomes noticeable just how much the actors rely on each other to push for reactions and keep the play moving along. There is certainly a rapport of sorts between Warnock and Linnell, presumably developed during rehearsals, although despite the strength of their individual performances they never quite convince as father and son. They are helped along by the sterling work of stage manager Lucy Blairs, who unobtrusively manages to handle the myriad scene changes: seemingly one every two or three minutes, which verges on excessive. These are accompanied by a short musical refrain that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get out of my head. While there are perhaps a few too many of these interruptions written into the script, it is admirable that all three visible participants maintained a sense of motion and progression on such a small stage, particularly when a chunk of the stage is taken up by a two-person tent, assembled and dismantled dexterously by the actors during the show.
They are, however, battling against a script that at times feels rather static: a great deal of gap-filling is required on the part of the audience, and we are left expecting more to happen. For a play selling itself on a “messy divorce”, there isn’t much explanation given as to what made it messy and difficult. We learn a little about the father’s youth and the source of his practical expertise, but he remains something of a blank canvas – and this is even truer of Boy. They start out as, and continue to be, archetypes, but Birch is sensitive to the distinctions between his characters’ voices, and renders them relatable if somewhat sketchy approximations of real people. The overall effect is rather cosier than you might anticipate from the title and synopsis, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with a gentler style and it’s the moments of mutual warmth between Man and Boy that stick in the mind after the play’s end rather than the somewhat underwhelming bursts of anger. In a way, it’s heartening to see a show that doesn’t aim to shock its audience but instead allows us to take what we want away with us. Where the shot rabbits lay, it turns out, is a home from home and a calming sense of hope.
Where The Shot Rabbits Lay continues at the White Bear Theatre until Sep 29. See the theatre website for more information.