Did Bud marry Myrna for love or for her farm? Was it genuine affection or, as the gossips insist, the lure of the ‘collateral’ that was at the heart of this union? Neil Sheffield presents us with a fistful of characters – and a few characters more – as this conundrum is skilfully played out in Bud.
A programme note from Nick Darke’s widow tells us that this play was born out of a number of experiences – rooted in a time when they lived in a shed on a farm in Cornwall where four legged chickens (the result of factory farming) were not uncommon and Nick’s concerns about land ownership were at their peak. But similarities, like property, have their limits and whilst these facts help bring colour to the story, they are only background to the central action.
Myrna – a decade Bud’s senior – is dead. The gossips believe that Bud killed his wife out of disappointment that he would not inherit the farm he had worked so hard to maintain – the farm which, those same gossips believe, is the only reason he married the older, arthritis-ridden Myrna.
This monologue is in the very safe hands of Neil Sheffield. He peoples the stage with a broad selection of characters. He portrays Bud himself as a single-minded and proud man whose naivety and lack of guile sometimes leaves him at the mercy of the worldly-wise around him (not least Myrna herself).
But, with subtlety and skill, Sheffield presents a cornucopia of other characters, each of whom is clearly drawn. Lady Rickeard, who commits the double sin of being the major local landowner AND an ‘incomer’ is aloof and patronising; the ‘chapel parrots’ are reminiscent of a cackle of soap-opera gossips; Myrna herself is suitably strident despite (or because of?) her crippling arthritis. Indeed, his ability to conjure up both the ‘creeping arthritis and desire’ which Bud says their union is based upon is typical of the evening’s contrasts. Although the man of the farm, it is Myrna who builds a Dutch barn single-handedly, as much to prove a point as for any immediate agricultural need. And it is she who has the business acumen, with knowledge of the European Common Agricultural Policy which is as amusing in its banality as it is alarming in its detail.
In the vast array of characters it is ‘The Shedist’ in particular who stands out. The man who effectively squats on the land in a shed (and for whom Bud unwittingly provides a major link in a home grown cannabis harvesting operation) is strikingly drawn with his long unkempt hair and curved back. He and all of the other characters are created without the help of any additional props, costumes or wigs.
Not that there aren’t plenty of props. Jessica Maliphant has created a thoroughly believable (and working) farm kitchen, clearly rooted in the ‘80s (the play was a 1985 RSC commission). The tumble drier in which Myrna hides a plucked, four-legged chicken, the kettle, the radio – all play their part. Even the Corn Flakes box is ‘period’. They are all invaluable when they support the storytelling, but the opening sequence (Bud’s early morning routine) served to slow the beginning, setting a tone and pace which took time to leave behind. But as the story and the performance developed the whole experience became more appealing. The unfolding study of the breakdown of a seemingly impregnable relationship, eroded by doubts which cause power and control to shift, is compellingly portrayed.
Penny Cliff has directed with subtlety and compassion, enabling Neil Sheffield to give an assured and engaging performance. It is an evening worthy of the tradition of the King’s Head.