The Southwark Playhouse has a reputation for being a hub of theatre excellence, and its latest offering, Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss, directed by the 2015 National Theatre award winner Mel Hillyard, is no exception. Set in a rather ramshackle room in New Mexico, the set gives off a peculiarly feral air, naturally reflected in the behaviour of the characters. Henry Moss is dead; his two sons, Ray and Earl, are gathered in Henry’s bedsit, on a mission to find out how he died. Ray’s beady-eyed suspicions and growing unease quickly become targeted at all Henry’s visitors: soup-bearing Esteban from next door; the Texan Taxi man; and most importantly, at his older brother Earl. As ‘facts’ reveal themselves, the meaning of ‘truth’ (and its merits) are explored, and, with flashes into the events leading up to Henry’s demise, audiences are left wondering if sometimes, the truth is better left buried.
Shepard’s writing here is sublime, picking up on the nuances of everyday speech, and the cast revel in the multitudes of misunderstandings and irritations that swarm about them. Joseph Arkley has a horrid shrewish meanness as Ray: he bullies and berates, but in moments of stillness we see his silent suffering, rendering him an object of sympathy instead of blame. Similarly, Jack Sandle as Earl perfectly captures the slow deterioration of a man harbouring a heavy secret that he has denied for years. Carolina Valdes is perfectly cast as Conchalla, roving about the stage and tantalising the menfolk, and Harry Ditson is a delight as Henry, bringing comedy and poignancy to a curmudgeonly alcoholic struggling to hold onto his existence. There is a particularly amusing scene involving Conchalla and Harry, a fish and a bath. Say no more.
Hillyard’s direction is wonderfully subtle, allowing the relationship dynamics within the text to shine through, and with eerie lighting shifts (designed by Christopher Nairne) and music composed by Keir Vine, this production is unsettling in its strangeness. In a production that moves and amuses, and with characters that become increasingly relatable – and recognisable – The Late Henry Moss at the Southwark Playhouse is a masterpiece in human behaviour, and a must see for any theatregoer.
Review by Amy Stow