The RSC has been sitting on these two absurdist parables of British insularity since 2020, when the pandemic halted its annual Mischief festival of new writing. The enforced hiatus hasn’t given them more depth or punch – each has ambition but is less mischievous than painfully larky.
Ivy Tiller: Vicar’s Daughter, Squirrel Killer (★★☆☆☆) by Bea Roberts gets off to a sharp start. Ivy is a single-minded woman on a mission, dedicated to making her Devon village a haven for endangered red squirrels. She shows a stomach-churning power point about squirrel pox and weeping ulcers to, it turns out, a primary school class. As Ivy, Jenny Rainsford stuffs her cheeks full of the character’s quiddities: her military zeal and unexamined grief, her alarming tableau of a stuffed grey squirrel terrorising Sylvanian family figures (“It’s very hard to learn taxidermy off of YouTube”).
“This land should be fecund with reds,” Ivy urges, but her conservation scheme mostly involves culling the abundant grey squirrels – she pegs out eviscerated hides in her living room, and someone on the props team has had fun making miniature innards. In a community that is tight but rarely warm, this extreme commitment to native species over supposed invaders serves as a metaphor for narrow-minded localism, but the play works best as a tour of Ivy’s unhappy singularity.
There are fine actors here – Jade Ogugua and Alex Bhat are spirited in both plays – but neither director does their text many favours. Caitlin McLeod’s production of Ivy Tiller is laboriously sprightly, with prolonged mime scene changes, while Guy Jones can’t find a consistent register for O, Island! In both, actors are goaded into cartoonish exaggeration.Nina Segal’s O, Island! (★★☆☆☆) begins with a flood, as an innocuous river rises and turns a placid village (or “very, very, very small town”) into an embattled island. Bhat’s Boris-a-like local MP braves the waters in pyjamas and epaulettes, but can’t persuade residents to embrace his photo opportunity rescue mission. Instead, sedate, elderly Margaret (Linda Broughton) unleashes a pungent speech excoriating the political elite, “who affect genteel airs but in fact rule only with impunity and violence”. It moves her fellow citizens to oust the MP and elect her to lead the newly isolated community.
Margaret rapidly gets a taste for power, a demagogue in pink flannelette – Broughton makes her a blend of Hyacinth Bucket and Mussolini. The play follows a tight trajectory – despite the talk of community, togetherness never gets a look in. The new regime moves swiftly through bickering to denunciation, until within no time it’s ID cards and gun-toting security. Despite the emergency, Margaret urges islanders to hurl rocks at boats carrying aid (“they’re not people, they’re outsiders”) and herds children into the school (“hardcore holiday camp”), while her celebratory pageant occupies the Wicker Man end of the folk-art spectrum.
The layers of curtains on Milla Clarke’s set are gradually stripped back, but revelations of fearful xenophobia hardly come as a surprise. Margaret proffers bourbon creams but dodges accusations of genocide (“It’s a horrible word – I prefer ‘cleansing’”). The island is “welcoming”, we’re assured, “to everyone already here”. You can draw your own post-Brexit parallels, as someone roars, “It’s not even a country – it’s a shithole!” Segal looks to nail the movement towards populist self-harm, but after years of Farage and Rees-Mogg, drama has to work harder for satire that bites.