turnip field

Josh Capper and Sean Jones reminisce in The Turnip Field

The Turnip Field

Stoke Repertory Theatre


A sunny evening in Stoke provides a warm welcome for the long awaited return of live theatre. Full credit to the venue and producers for opening the doors again after what has seemed a very long period of darkness across the world of theatre.

We are not quite there yet, of course. Social distancing forces limited capacity and strict entry guidelines means mingling over a pre show drink is out. Intervals too are suspended meaning theatres are missing out on bar income and punters can’t have a half time natter and top up.

But all that will come and doesn’t take away from the sheer relief of being back in a theatre and away from virtual, online poorer substitutes.

Catherine O’Reilly’s sweet and engaging play about two Irish brothers playing out their childhood reminiscences meanders along beautifully, providing moments of comedy, tenderness and heartache in equal measure. A turnip field, their happy meeting place, is the sole location and provides a stark but fitting backdrop to the rich and busy dialogue that the brothers delight in.

There can be no hiding place in two hander plays. So much is carried on the shoulders of the two actors. There is no time off between scenes, no pauses for breath whilst other actors take focus; every nuance and expression is magnified and every utterance given heightened attention. There is no reliance on fancy special effects or big numbers. Stripped back simplicity is the key. It’s all about the story and how effectively it is told. If it is well written and well-acted, the rest will follow.

O’Reilly’s story , inspired by her late father, switches between comedy and pathos effortlessly and gives the two actors, Sean Jones and Josh Capper a perfect vehicle to explore their memories and experiences to the full. Both actors excel both physically and verbally, capturing the fears, joys and pain of childhood at every turn. Mimicked characters come and go. The gossiping old ladies, the local drunk, the fire and brimstone priest . . . all skillfully represented. Even Robert De Niro gets a look in!

What elevates the play is its layers. It’s not just about two brothers sharing stories in a field, as entertaining as those stories are. There is a message that becomes apparent as the play reaches its climax and the two brothers leave the scene. A clever and touching conclusion that brings everything full circle.

Tim Churchill’s direction allows the actors to explore with freedom and never allows it to become formulaic. Pace and effective pausing are used well throughout and energy is sustained at every stage

Jeremy Wooton’s original music underscores and accompanies scenes appropriately, injecting added drama and power. It works well. If anything, there could have been more. The nod to the Steptoe and Son theme as one of the brothers tries to assemble a makeshift old banger is a lovely touch,

The set, a fence enclosed turnip field littered with multipurpose old tyres that serve, amongst other things, as armchairs, is basic but sufficient and perfectly suits the more intimate confines of a smaller theatre. Lighting conveys the changes in temperature and time and a strong sound design supports the flow of the story well.

New writing is always something of a box office risk. Producers could have settled for an easy option and tempted audiences back with a staple classic. Huge credit then to O’Reilly and Churchill for following their passion for new work and getting it out there. Good on the venue too for providing a platform. Producers need venues to work with and this certainly seems an encouraging partnership that deserves to flourish.

Seamlessly acted and beautifully written, The Turnip Field is a joy from start to finish. A story from the heart that resonates in us all.

The Turnip Field runs until 29 May at the Stoke Repertory Theatre and transfers to the Turbine Theatre in London from 2 June for four performances.

Tom Roberts


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