IN BRIEF A moving lament to loss in all its forms, compassionately written and acted
Set in an uncertain time at an uncertain place, mountainous Bear Ridge is a ghost town. The only remainers are John Daniel (Rhys Ifans) and Noni (Rakie Ayola), the owners of the almost-empty general store. Together they reminisce about happier times, when they had customers, “The Old Language” was spoken and their son (now dead), played with his childhood friend, now their slaughterman, who has become a surrogate son. “This is where we belong” says Noni, as jet planes roar disconcertingly overhead.
ON BEAR RIDGE is not only about stories, but about the actual ability to remember- a terrifying abyss that John Daniel looks over, pulled back and reassured by the ever-present comfort of Noni. To assuage his worry about the burden of keeping “The Old Language” alive, and of maintaining memories, they remember together. Customers and their idiosyncrasies, lists of stock, their beloved son – all now gone, but kept alive through their memories and their re-telling. A visit from a shell-shocked Captain causes tensions, but as gently stoic Noni says, “we’re upset-proof”.
Ifans teeters along the edge of a whole range of emotions as John Daniel; melancholy, outrage, terror and humour in an endearing performance, deep with feeling. He has a long opening monologue about the birth of their son, fashioned with care and sweetness. All the more bitter that later we hear of his murder at the hands of those who abhor The Old Language which he spoke in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ayola as Noni eloquently captures the caring yet strong nature of her character, bringing quiet but reassuring stability to John Daniel’s fragility.
What shines through is the love between John Daniel and Noni, and the care and respect with which they treat others. A cup of tea is drunk mindfully amidst distressing circumstances but they have learned to carry on regardless, until “the time comes”. Kindness and care has almost been distilled into them. If the shop is all they know, then Kindness is what they do.
Echoing current concerns about the loss of rural communities and a gentler way of life, the show slows us and gives us time to think about how memory is what makes us who we are; and that when we die, the memories, stories and traditions all die with us unless they are taken up by others.
Ed Thomas, author of BBC Wales series Hinterland (shot in Welsh) draws attention to the rural communities’ culture, customs and legacies that are under threat of extinction. This must have felt very potent to him to produce his first play in 15 years; it is semi-autobiographical (his family ran a butcher/grocery shop in a small community), and he co-directs the play with Vicky Featherstone (AD of the Royal Court).
The play has much that is only partly-said, leaving many questions. It felt like this construction consciously echoed the fragility of keeping knowledge and experience alive.
Cai Dyfan’s intriguing, exploded set design of the store with walls that don’t meet and a grid for a roof, diminishes at each scene ending, as one by one the walls disappear, yet another metaphor for loss, finally to leave our characters exposed to the snow, before another flyover by the jet planes.
Asking more questions than it answers, Thomas’s play is like its characters- gentle, nostalgic, melancholy and fragmented. In many ways enjoyable but also elusive. I enjoyed that it made me think a lot about its messages afterwards.