Theatre review: A Six-Inch Layer Of Topsoil And The Fact It Rains, Birnam Arts Centre

Melody Grove in A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and The Fact it Rains
Melody Grove in A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and The Fact it Rains
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It’s a far cry from the rip-roaring, rebellious days of John McGrath’s 7:84 Scotland, 45 years ago; but all the same, Kieran Hurley’s new touring show for Perth Theatre has that special quality of listening to the voices of a community, and reflecting it back to itself, in its own halls and arts centres.

Theatre review: A Six-Inch Layer Of Topsoil And The Fact It Rains, Birnam Arts Centre ****

For the past year, Hurley has been travelling across Perthshire, talking to farmers about their way of life, and their future in the face of Brexit and climate change; and the result is this thoughtful one-hour show, directed by Perth Theatre’s Lu Kemp, and performed by actor-musician and musical director Aly Macrae, and actress Melody Grove.

The mood is relaxed, with a friendly cup of tea to greet the audience, and some community singing in classic 7:84 style; but once the show gets underway, it soon becomes clear that there can be no agitprop or calls to action here, simply because the issues facing the 21st century farming community, in Perthshire as elsewhere, are so dauntingly complex and profound.

With each performer playing six or seven characters, we hear from shepherds, migrant workers and elderly lady lairds, from big commercial farmers, and new age smallholders.

And whatever we make of their views, there is a rare satisfaction in hearing a nuanced debate about our imminent future that is based on practical realities, rather than on the entrenched positions of identity-driven politics. Some farmers fear the post-Brexit loss of the subsidies that sustain a certain level of food production and security, in a country where 40% of the land is already turned over to sporting estates; others welcome the end of the Common Agricultural Policy as a historic chance to do things differently, and more sustainably.

In a sense, Hurley’s show is too short to do justice to the huge issues it raises; the two performers are certainly stretched to the limit, by the task of embodying so many different voices. Yet on a theatre scene that currently seems wary of dealing directly with the state in which we find ourselves, this gentle collage of talk and song is a rare and enjoyable exception. The title refers to the two simple facts of nature that lie between us and starvation, on the face of the earth; and this valuable show makes us think, and think again, about how best to pass that inheritance on to coming generations, without further irreversible damage.

On tour until 19 May to Blair Atholl, Alyth, Blairgowrie and Kinross.