Crooked Wood began life as a TV play, Number 27, by Michael Palin (broadcast by the BBC in 1988). It’s basically the ultimate antidote to David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross: a deliciously English adventure of Machiavellian property developers floored by steely politeness, tidal waves of Earl Grey tea, and a calm, but firm, rebellion against the lures of money and power in favour of memory, joy and sincere attachment. Miss Barwick’s house stands between shady Golden Future Properties and their multimillion-pound development project, but she won’t budge for anyone’s money, even though the house is crumbling around her, for it holds a lifetime of memories. “It has never deserted me. I can’t desert it. Do you see?”, she dreamily explains to an astounded Andrew Veitch (Richard Morgan), a hard-skinned developer who sees his offer brushed aside like an unwanted bluebottle: not angrily, always elegantly, but with unflinchingly pleasant firmness. Playwright Gillian Plowman updates the action to 2007, and sets her two key characters, Miss Barwick and Veitch, on dangerous paths which draw us irrevocably into the drama, wondering whether Miss Barwick will really win out against all odds, and watching Veitch wonder within himself whether, after so many years of aggressive success, he even has a heart left to hear her view. As the situation becomes ever more desperate, the play becomes ever more eloquent about what is truly valuable in life.
Director and designer Andy Naylor turns Westacre Theatre’s generously wide stage into an Aladdin’s cave of antique treasures to create a touchably real domestic landscape: a magnificent gramophone, armchairs with crisp antimacassars, shelves of mouldering leatherbound books and a sumptuous Japanned chest which quickly catches the covetous eye of Veitch’s beauty-hungry, callously aspirational wife Sally (a brittle, vulnerable know-it-all who also has to decide on her true priorities, played with astringent presence by Katherine Shaw). Reactive lighting and sound by Alice Bright completes the image of a creaking, cracking house whose ancient wiring can be fused by its doorbell, and occasionally lets us see through walls to a perilously rotten staircase: the house itself is almost a character in its own right, staggering precariously through the play with a will almost as defiant as Miss Barwick’s, and wreaking just as much havoc in the lives of the dumbfounded developers.
The jewel of the evening is Issy Huckle’s suave, wily yet seemingly ingenuous Miss Barwick, an 87-year old spinster whose resourcefulness and determination never ceases to amuse us, while her endlessly graceful manners put all around her to shame (an inherent trait – but undoubtedly also another brilliant tactic). Huckle’s superb diction and phrasing, just occasionally hesitant, is as much of a treat as her silent, physically expressive moments – dancing the Charleston in her sitting room, or quietly downing a second glass of Cinzano when no one else can see. Huckle is ably supported by Richard Morgan, whose Veitch proves to have far more depth and natural appeal than the character cares to admit. Smaller roles are rather weaker, with a requisite soft-hearted left-wing lawyer, Quentin Gilbert (David Connor), and a brutal profiteer, Lester Murray, who gets menacing presence, but not much more, from Stephen Rimmer, struggling with a flickering Irish accent. We find repeated gaps and pauses where the action ought to flow; but what this production lacks in dramatic smoothness, it makes up for in tearjerking punch. Well worth the trip to Westacre.