The winner of
the last Bruntwood Prize, Andrew Sheridan’s Winterlong opened at the
Royal Exchange Manchester and is now running in the same production at
the Soho Theatre.
The play follows fifteen years in the
life of Oscar, born to a teenage mother who abandons him to his
grandparents. The world he grows up in is brutal and harsh, the family
relations poisoned and twisted. His grandfather hates him. And yet
somehow through all of this, Oscar maintains a feeling of openness and
love, hope and beauty. Which may not avail him much as the world seems
to end with the play.
Andy Sheridan’s previously best known as
an actor. This is his first play. It’s promising in lots of ways: the
dialogue is flinty and imagistic; the cruelty of the world is vividly
and unflinchingly portrayed; the epic span of the play - which leaps
forward two years at a time in the first half - is bold and
well-handled; the juxtaposition of scenes and episodes, the variety and
vigour of them all, gives it a grand feel. Oscar is a great character
(performed with extraordinary conviction by Harry McEntire).
It’s unremitting in its horror. The
first half in particular does feel a little unmotivated in its
brutality; people are so incredibly nasty to each other, again and
again, getting fouler just when you thought they’d done their worst,
that it never feels quite possible to get a sense of the world he’s
depicting - there’s not enough texture there. The scene where Oscar’s
mum, Helen, and her partner, Neil, visit the grandparents and Neil
humiliates Helen and therefore the grandparents is very hard to watch
and to me not particularly illuminating because I didn’t really
understand why these events were happening and why we were being shown
them. Much more powerful, because subtler, is an encounter between Oscar
and a paedophile in the park, the transaction and the sexuality subtler
and more ambiguous between them.
Where’s this all come from? I was very struck by similarities between this and A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky
by David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens, which Sheridan
performed in. It has a similar familial nastiness and an apocalyptic
backdrop. Oscar is very reminiscent of the kind of affectless
anti-ironic sincerity that Simon Stephens and Robert Holman particularly
go for. (Harry McEntire reminded me of Billy Seymour in Herons and Pornography.) Some critics have spotted Beckett in here, though I didn’t see much of that. Maybe there’s some Kane in the mix.
The writing has many strengths. For me, I didn’t get a very strong sense of voice; and hey it’s a first play, so it will be interesting to see what happens when and if he finds a distinctive style of his own. The play relies a bit on rather strained poeticisms and a few of those wild semi-surreal monologues that are fun to write but dramatically a bit inert because basically they could be anything. I’d be interested to see a stronger sense of drive to the next play and perhaps greater economy. But also I hope he’ll retain the ambition and scale and brutality. Strong debut.