Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Oliver Johnson as Alan Strang with Nugget worn by Johnathan Talsma-James


Highbury Theatre Centre


PETER Shaffer’s probe into the darker workings of the human mind is never easy viewing but this remarkable production has an hypnotic, magnetic attraction as each layer of the narrative is painfully peeled away to leave the subject laid bare . . . quite literally.

The subject in question being Alan Strang, a 17-year-old loner saved from jail by a magistrate who decides he needs help rather than incarceration after he has blinded six horses with a hoof pick at the stables where he worked at weekends.

Help comes in the form of psychiatrist Martin Dystar, and as he tries to solve the mystery of Strang, we discover he has almost as many hang-ups as his patient. He is nagged by strang ridinga fear that in returning the disturbed youngsters referred to him to what convention sees as normality he is not helping them but merely condemning them to a life which is dull and empty, like his own, taking away the essence of what made them and destroying the things they worshipped.

He has a home life that is a sham, a marriage in little more than name - a home life that Strang might find easy to relate to - and an obsession with primitive Greek culture and their worship of a myriad of Gods. Worship is a running theme.

Strang riding Nugget in an act of worship to his god, Equus

Understanding Alan’s journey to attacking the horses is not easy, perhaps we were never intended to understand it, but we do see the trigger points, his buttons that are pressed along the way; a thrilling horse ride along a beach as not much more than a toddler turned into a nightmare by an overbearing father; a mother with overgrand ideas of her ancestry and a religious fixation; an atheist father who despises religion, TV and pretty much everything else, and who sees books and learning, and nothing else, as the only true course for anyone not wanting to be as stupid as the masses. It all leaves Alan as collateral damage from their own private war of a marriage.

Susie May Lynch and Robert Hicks give a wonderful portrayal of the parents, she a prim, proper retired school teacher who, you suspect, embraced middle age long before her time; he a dour, humourless printer who seems to hate the well-to-do yet despises the working class he champions in his own personal battle with life and his wife.

Joanne Richards is convincing as the magistrate Hester Salomon, who sends all the waifs and strays who have lost their way enough to end up before her bench in the direction of Dysart.

And from Rob Laird as Dysart and Oliver Johnson as Strang we get two stellar performances. Laird has the opening and final words and is involved with everything in between.

Notwithstanding the number of lines, his is hardly the easiest of parts to learn with its philosophical arguments couched in words and phrasing that sound impressive on stage yet would hardly slip easily into conversation down the pub, or anywhere else for that matter.

Johnson has the task of gradually revealing the truth, and somewhat more, as the disturbed Strang tormented by ritual and religion and a fixation on his own personal and private god, Equus.

From the stroppy, callow, uncommunicative youth who responds with TV advertising jingles, we follow his slow descent into madness through a seamless mix of real tiequus maskme and flashbacks to the final dramatic moments when Strang, stripped of everything, including his clothes, stands naked revealing the awful truth.

The sparring between the two is fascinating to watch. Shaffer’s writing might be superb but it still needs actors to make it work.

There is good support in particular from Helen Denning as Jill Mason, the stable girl, who introduces Strang to the stables and who inadvertently leads him to a shocking revelation about his father before she tries to seduce him on that fatal night when 17 years of priming finally come to a head.

One of the symbolic masks with glowing eyes to represent the stable horses

Sandra Haynes as the nurse, Jonathan Talsma-James as the horseman on the beach, and Costas Calogirou as the stable owner keep up the high standard of performance with the latter two, along with Rob Gregory, Josh Higgs and Robert Hicks appearing as the symbolic horses in stunning copper masks.

Talsma-James plays both the horseman and horse on the beach – horse and horseman as one is another recurring theme - as well as Nugget in the stable and twice has to gallop around the stage with Johnson on his back.

Malcolm Robertshaw has designed an impressive set, creating almost a stage within a stage overlooking the psychiatrist’s office with the support cast perched, like a silent Greek chorus, at the back.

Andrew Noakes and Tony Reynolds have both done a fine job on lighting and sound respectively. There are a lot of cues for both music and sound effects as well as both subtle and dramatic lighting changes which all had to be spot on to make the thing work coherently.

Director Claire Amstrong Mills has used the set and limited props well and has produced a well-paced production of Shaffer's 1973 play with the tension steadily building up towards the final revelation. It might not be entertainment in the conventional sense, nor is it a psychological thriller, more a detective story, solving a crime in the mind, but whatever it is, it is a cracking piece of theatre. To 27-06-15.

Roger Clarke


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