“Blackthorn” is the debut play from Charley Miles, a young writer from North Yorkshire, and it is presently ornamenting the Summerhall’s stunning Roundabout theatre. At the beginning, Him (Harry Egan) and Her (Charlotte Bate) create the stage, as it were, by marking out the circle in which their story will be told. They are children and they are dancing and skipping about, somewhere on a farm and near to a barn. They could be Helen White and George Willard from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), restored to life and enacting what they had once shared as a kind of bodily epiphany:
They were both embarrassed and to relieve their embarrassment dropped into the animalism of youth. They laughed and began to pull and haul at each other. In some way chastened and purified by the mood they had been in, they became, not man and woman, not boy and girl, but excited little animals.
Miles’ characters do this dance anti-clockwise, in progressing from excited little animals to embarrassed adults. They grow, bloom, and droop. They are nevertheless always swirling within their circle, always going back and forth and round and round, as their children’s games spin into sexual curiosity, aimlessly jealousy, class alienation, bitterness, and jaded longing. It is like the concept of “generation loss,” in which an originally vivid image is copied so many times that it degrades. Him and Her are still pulling and hauling, until one of them finally breaks from the circle and the story is over.
I have seen this device – that in which a bittersweet couple are observed over most of a lifetime – being used last year in Luiza Minghella’s “All My Life Long,” which itself bore a decided resemblance to David Nicholls’ 2009 novel One Day. Were I a dramatist, I might be tempted to parody this format. I could queue up scenes from two entire platonic lifetimes of bored small talk. Terrance and Ingrid (I’ve already got the names) would chat listlessly about different soap operas, or maybe even the same one, as the years flew by.
Yet “Blackthorn” acquires its own uniqueness, despite the hand-me-down plotline, due to the intermingled force of its writing and acting. It exploits the abrupt lyricism of the Yorkshire way of speaking, from t’ top to bottom. There is often something pleasantly tantalising within the dialogue – it is firm on silly details and airy when it comes to important ones (e.g. “She lost the baby, by accident, trying to…” is left hanging.) There is a nice dizziness to Her – a jumble of cringing and pouncing reflexes – as though her life was uneven music and she is staggering about the dancefloor in confusion. Him, on the other hand, is a broader character and altogether more mysterious. He is sometimes shy and vulnerable and sometimes hard and determined. You can imagine how Her would talk about Him if you ever got her alone: she would be wet-eyed, throbbing, and eternally true. I am not quite so certain, however, about Him. He could feasibly sound like this:
“Ha ha, she’s mad her. Drunk again and slobbering all over me. Nice tits though. I only need to snap my fingers… but I just don’t need the hassle.”
Perhaps they sense that they are happier or securer as a purely speculative unit than they would be as an unhappy couple. Or perhaps they are rebels against the government of love. Him feels it stronger – the need to be free from somebody who knows so much about your past that they seem, imperceptibly, to own you.