In many ways, Peter Arnott’s adaptation of Robin Jenkins’ The Cone Gatherers feels like Scottish Steinbeck.
* * * * Two brothers, Neil and Callum, are sent to a country estate during the Second World War to gather pine cones so that trees can be replanted. Callum is crippled and mentally handicapped, while his brother is charged to look after him. Their arrival does not sit well with the groundskeeper, John Duror, who, hampered by a bedridden and misshapen wife, has an intrinsic and disturbing hatred of imperfection.
Alongside this, Neil expresses bitterness at the estate’s luxuries. However, the young master of the house, Roddie, can’t comprehend the division, going out of his way to talk to the gatherers.
The performances are sublime. Helen Mackay crosses genders to play the cherubic Roddie, perfectly capturing his youthful innocence. Ben Winger as Callum is also a highlight, treating the disabled character with delicacy and poise. However, these are nothing when compared with Tom McGovern’s powerhouse performance as Duror. He is dominant on stage – moving between pitiful and intimidating in a blink of an eye – and puts everything into the groundskeeper’s descent into madness.
McGovern’s intensity is framed with superb narration and poignant moments of dance and physical theatre. Three actors provide a spine-chilling portrayal of Duror’s wife and Maggie Hamilton brilliantly evokes a flitting deer with her movement.
The set is stark, created by strings descending from the ceiling with light streaming though them, criss-crossing the performance area. These act as the screen for The Cone Gatherers’ masterful projections, showing everything from the peaceful forest to a frantic hunt. This is all backed with a haunting score by The Martians’ frontman John Kielty. Not happy simply playing Neil, the composer has brought atmosphere, depth and layers of emotion to every scene with his music.
The tension can be cut with a knife throughout. Arnott’s adaptation has provided a strong foundation on which director Kenny Ireland has carved an engaging and heartwrenching piece of theatre. Far from a cone, this production’s needles will pierce you right to the core.
Run ends Saturday.