In Review

On Bear Ridge review: bleak laughs in a Welsh dystopia

Ifans impresses in a strange play, punctuated by black humour

Snow falling on jagged rocks, a barren storefront and piled up remnants of old furniture – Ed Thomas’s On Bear Ridge is not exactly a cheery production.

It begins with Rhys Ifans awakening on the ground in the snow, and babbling incomprehensibly. From there on, it mostly gets more strange and more bleak. There are, however, gleaming moments of humour, thanks especially to a very talented cast.

The plot, such as there is one, revolves around a couple who are the last people in a deserted, mountain-top village in a dystopian, war-torn Wales (though the country is not explicitly named). Alone, they struggle to maintain a grip on reality, both past and present, attempting to remember what was real and what wasn’t. They are also grieving a loss, and so they go, reminiscing together, to their non-functioning shop.

This balance is interrupted by a wandering soldier, who, scarred by the violence and hopelessness of the country outside, takes shelter in the shop. The turbulent interactions between the characters match the uninviting landscape outside, and as the walls of the shop literally fall away, you are left feeling completely exposed to the elements, and vividly threatened by the outside world.

Ifans and Rakie Ayola are both gripping in the lead roles – equal parts melancholic and impassioned. Their abstract musing on identity, memory, and loss, which could easily be tiresome and trite, are in fact deeply moving. As they try to remember snippets of “the old language”, and fret over their inability to keep it alive, we can feel the weight of disappearing cultures and traditions all over the world.

The play ends with a striking, comic vignette that strikes the right tone in terms of summing up the experience of seeing On Bear Ridge.

Watching it, you can’t help but laugh, and yet you also can’t quite believe you are laughing. There’s something frightening and dark in the comedy, and that uneasy hopelessness seems to be what Thomas, along with his co-director Vicky Featherstone, wants to put across.

On Bear Ridge will be showing at the Royal Court until 23 November.

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