I am back at Paradise in the Vault for the afternoon. Somebody has taken a broom and swept an old cellar clean of its ghosts to create the theatre. Mere Anarchy look like an undergraduate outfit, but they actually hail from a Catholic secondary school in Bath. “Country Air” begins with a ghost emerging from the scenery – a dustsheet sits up with a “face of crumpled linen” – but it turns out to be only Jack Goulder, a playwright who we find both within and outside of his play. He may seem to be the most delightful twit, flopping about decadently in his pyjamas, but his nostrils flare with beastly relish as the story begins. His script is not yet ready – we have the story, but neither a moral nor any meaning.
We meet the cast. A couple from “the city” – probably Bristol – have relocated to the Somerset countryside, snapping up a lonely house on a hill. Two employees from the removal company are mildly mutinous, and they complain that they are being “typecast” because they are working class. Goulder keeps out of their way. This smarty-pants postmodern stuff should make for unpredictable theatre, but Goulder will not let it spoil a comfortable ghost story.
Indeed, the most entertainment on this front comes quite unexpectedly from the audience. An extremely distinguished looking old boy with silver hair is sitting two seats down from me, and he is photographing everything which occurs on stage. He chuckles loudly at the flattest lines. And then, ten minutes into the play, he is sleeping like a baby. Is this part of the performance? It all adds to the quirky nature of the proceedings.
“Country Air” is initially just fun. A couple from the village are invited to the haunted house for a knockabout drinks party. Both couples end up squabbling and fooling around with the wine and bites. They are idiotically middle-class – “pastel colours literally saved our marriage” – but it is like watching mischievous children who are mocking the inexplicable behaviour of their parents.
Everything is pleasantly knowing and clichéd. The husband (Billy Martin) is an insensitive dick with a modern haircut, which looks like an ineptly fitted toupee even though it is really his hair. Of course, he spends too much time in the city and he does not understand his wife. The wife (Emily Drummond-Smith) rattles with hysteria, but she is determined to get to the bottom of the ghost.
Although Goulder will later admit that his story has no moral, we learn that relocating to the countryside – and particularly Somerset – is a deeply stupid thing to do. In her massive country house, the housewife has sold her soul “for nothing.” They are not actually taking part in the countryside – these people are a world away from the earthy Somerset accent – and they have instead wilfully consigned themselves to a more bourgeois equivalent of what Marx had termed “the idiocy of rural life.”
The preliminary larking about renders the later manifestations of ghostliness unexpectedly creepy. An eerie message issues from an antiquated cassette player. In a superbly executed sequence, the housewife is bombarded by ghostly thumps. Although Hector Selby seems to be that member of the cast who is told to just get on stage and look pretty, he proves oddly unnerving as a mysterious stranger who materialises in the living room. Yet the laughs and nerves negate one another; a play at once whimsical and compelling finds its way home to the excuses of the failed storyteller. This defeated figure is, however, scarcely even the spectre of an extremely inventive playwright.