The Drawer Boy – September 2008

9/10

By: Michael Healy

Directed by: Gavin Stride

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Friday 26th September 2008

This was a fantastic experience, and although we’ve seen a lot of good stuff at this small theatre, this was probably the best of them all. My heartstrings weren’t just tugged, a piano’s worth of them were pulled right out of me as we went on this emotional rollercoaster, and I don’t expect to get them back anytime soon. Exquisite agony. And there was a good deal of humour as well, to lighten the load. Heaven.

The set was quite elaborate for the Mill Studio. At the back were two blue sheets, hung one in front of the other, to allow for an exit to the farm proper. In front was the farmhouse kitchen, cut away so we could get a good view of anyone approaching from the direction of the farm. There was a stoop to our left, and a door to the rest of the house on our right. The kitchen had a sink next to the stoop, a stove to the right of that, then the fridge. A table stood by the wall along from the door, with butter and jam on it, and there was a bread bin underneath it. There was a small table with a telephone beside the door. A larger table stood in the middle of the floor, with two chairs and box to sit on. Above the sink was a window, and through this we could see tall stalks of corn growing. Outside there was a stool and a trestle stand which Morgan used as a seat.

The three characters are Angus, Morgan and Miles. Angus is a simple, gentle character. From the start he’s a character we care about, even before we learn about his accident during the war and how it left him with no memory. Morgan is his life-long friend who takes care of him, and he shows a great deal of love in the way he handles Angus’s little ways. Miles is a young actor, part of a collective who have descended on this small farming community to learn about the farmer’s lives and devise a play based on what they find. Miles is not the sharpest tool in the box. He shows so little aptitude for the farming life that after hitting Morgan with the tractor, Morgan gives him nothing but spurious time-wasting jobs to do. Like gravel washing. He fell for every tall story Morgan told him, including the one about rotating the crops during the night, so that the corn that got the morning sun could get the afternoon sun as well. Over time, as Miles gets to know more about these men than Morgan bargained for, he brings to the surface some long-buried secrets, and we get to go through this painful journey with them.

As Angus has no ability to retain memories of anything since his accident, Morgan has been telling him the story of their lives every day for years. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, and well told tonight, under the stars. (I won’t get it right, but here’s the gist.) Morgan tells Angus the story of two boys, one who could draw and was really smart, and one who was a farming boy and was his friend. They grew up together. The one who could draw, the drawer boy of the title, drew pictures of a cabin, and they built it themselves. Then the war came and they both went off to fight. They went to England and met two English girls, one tall, the other taller. The tall girl liked the farming boy, and the taller one liked the drawer boy. They made plans to marry and live together in a double house. One day the drawer boy was outside during a bombing raid, and a front door hit him when a shell exploded in the empty house he was looking at. When the war was over, they all went back home, and they married. Then the women were out driving a big black car that they’d bought, and had an accident. Both were killed, and their bodies were buried at the top of the highest hill in the place. Then the two men lived together in the house.

It’s a sad enough story, but even more moving as told properly in the play. Miles was listening in, and took notes, and in the next scene we see the results. Angus and Morgan have been to a rehearsal by the collective, and see Miles doing this story. Angus is delighted – he recognised the story and that Miles was playing Morgan – but Morgan is furious that their personal story has been used like this, and is in the process of sending Miles packing, when Angus starts to remember things. Up to now, he’s not remembered Miles’s name at all, and Miles has learned to introduce himself whenever Angus walks into the room, or even turns around and catches sight of him after a gap. Now Angus not only remembers his name, he starts to remember why Miles is there, and insists that he stays.

This took us up to the interval. After the interval, we get the gravel washing scene, where we come in part way through Miles telling Angus the story of Hamlet. It sounded as though Miles is talking about himself at first, but we soon picked up on the plot (handy that we’ve just seen the play a couple of nights ago), and Angus seemed to be fascinated by this story. I was concerned that he was confusing reality and fiction, but he always seemed to get a foot back on solid ground when he needed to, a remarkable achievement for someone in his condition.

Angus wants to hear their story again, and wants Miles to tell it like he did at the rehearsal. Miles feels awkward about this, knowing that it’s Morgan’s story to tell, and that Morgan still isn’t happy with him for telling it. He gets Angus to tell the story, prompting him when he needs it. As they get to the end, Angus becomes concerned about where the double house is, and where the two girls are buried, and why Morgan has never taken him there. He starts insisting that they go there, now, and Morgan can’t seem to distract him anymore. Finally Angus just ups and heads off on his own in the middle of the night, with Morgan heading off to search for him, and Miles left in the kitchen to wait.

With Angus not yet back the next day, Miles and Morgan are not getting on. It’s clear there’s more to Morgan’s reluctance to take Angus to the hilltop than he’s admitting, and finally Miles realises that it’s just a story, and that Morgan’s been lying to Angus all along. Unfortunately, Angus hears this comment as he stands outside the kitchen window, and throws a great big wobbly. For a while I thought he’d completely lost it, as he starts talking about Morgan as “him”, and claims “he” killed Angus’s father and married his mother. I thought he’d taken the Hamlet story and started believing it was his, but in fact he was just upset that Morgan wouldn’t admit that he’d lied, nor tell him why. And perhaps there was a bit of spite there too.

So now we’re set up for the final unravelling of what actually happened all those years ago. There was a slight hiatus at this point during tonight’s performance, as Ian Blower, who played Morgan, had only had a week to rehearse after replacing another actor who had broken his ankle. He carried a clipboard from time to time – to be honest, although the director had made an announcement at the start about this, I hadn’t actually noticed any problems with any of the parts up to now. But this was a big speech, and it had awkward variations on the earlier story, making it harder to learn, I’m sure. The correct speech wasn’t on the clipboard, and the director and another assistant were involved getting the right bits of paper for him. Once they did, we got to hear the full tale, and although some impetus was lost, we soon got back into it. (Steve felt it didn’t affect the performance at all – men!)

The real story was that Morgan talked Angus out of going to university, and persuaded him to join up. They saw some horrific things near the start of their service – three men being burned to death – and decided to take a back seat as often as possible, even firing their guns into the air to waste ammunition. They’d met the girls in England as before, but the reason Angus was out in the open when the bomb fell was that Morgan had sent him out to fetch a bottle of brandy which Sally, the taller girl, had in her car. It was a piece of shrapnel that got Angus, in the back of his head, and then no memory.

When they all got to Canada, Sally decided to wait until Angus was better before getting married. The double house wasn’t built, but they did buy the farm, and lived in the house that came with it. One day, when Sally was baking bread, Angus hit her for no reason. She realised there was no chance of him getting better, and so she and her friend left for England. Angus had been asleep when they left, and when he woke up he knew something was wrong and spent ages searching the house. Finally Morgan grabbed him to stop him running upstairs one more time, and told him the story about the car crash to give Angus some peace, which it did. From there, it became easier for both of them to stick to Morgan’s version of events, and so he carried on lying.

There were many emotional moments during this play, but when Angus says to Morgan “you must have hated me then” or similar, once he realises that his hitting Sally has caused Morgan to lose the love of his life, I just wanted to sob for ages. I can still feel the tears now. To say that to a friend who caused him to have no memory, was tremendously moving. After this, Angus seems to settle back into the previous setup, and Miles heads off to another rehearsal. He’d been to milk the cows, and apparently broke the milking machine, so milked all the cows by hand to give them some relief. Without a bucket. Morgan heads off to see how much damage he’s done, and is delighted to find that he actually got the machine to work, and that the vat is full. With his delight still ringing in our ears, Angus takes the plans for the double house and pins them up on the back of the door, where they had been previously. It’s a worrying sign – how much will he now expect, and how hard is Morgan going to have to work to keep him happy? But at least we know all, and I don’t just mean the story.

This was such a moving play, with plenty of understanding and compassion for the characters, that it was a real privilege to be watching it. Like Calendar Girls, it’s the kind of play that makes me glad to be human. There were no heroes, but the mistakes that were made were normal for young men, and their relationship was full of caring, which tempered the guilt Morgan must certainly have felt at times. Both Morgan and Angus will stay with us for a long time. Miles, on the other hand, will not be allowed through the door, though if the acting doesn’t work out, he can always get a job milking cows.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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