“There is no fairy tale”, Lady Runcie-Campbell warns her son as she admonishes him for showing compassion to two men working on their highland estate in 1943. The truth is apparent at the start of this Aberdeen Performing Arts production of The Cone Gatherers, based on Robin Jenkin’s 1950s novel. Lady Runcie-Campbell’s shattered nerves, her inability to manage the estate whilst her husband serves in Africa, and her reliance on an increasingly obsolete social hierarchy, steadily affects her relationship with her son, the twelve-year-old Roddie. Torn between her autocratic brother and Roddie’s burgeoning socialism, Lady Runcie-Campbell struggles to justify her decision to dismiss two cone gatherers who gather cones and seeds from the trees which are to be sacrificed for the war effort. Lady Runcie-Campbell fails to see that the future of the forest lies in their hands, rather than hers. The cone gatherers are brothers, Neil and Callum The latter suffers from an undisclosed physical and mental disability. Neil protects his brother, but the men barely make a living. Not only does their arrival on the estate ignite class conflict, it also coincides with the mental decline of the estate gamekeeper, Duror. Tortured by the long term sickness of his wife, Duror lacks empathy or tolerance, and loathes difference, or anything “misshapen”. There is indeed no fairy tale here, but, even in such a dark story of conflict, instability and war, The Cone Gatherers contains flashes of warmth, understanding and compassion.
Vital to both the estate, and to each character in the play, the forest provides a perfect and ambiguous setting. The woodland dominates Peter Anott’s production; this is a forest, we are told, which talks and listens. Hayden Griffin’s set uses vertical ropes which highlight projections; these draw the audience into a forest of good and evil. Anyone who has seen Aberdeen Performing Arts’ Sunset Song, and The Silver Darlings, will recognise the adaptation process which has been used here to great effect by director Kenny Ireland. The minimal set and the committed cast provide a potent theatrical experience. The score, produced by John Kielty, who also plays the part of Neil, provides short choral sections and incidental music which underscores but never intrudes. In tandem with startling choreography by Karen Barry, the music and movement are very expressive. This is perfectly exemplified in the excitement, uproar and and chaos of the deer hunt, where the deer is made beautifully vulnerable by dancer Maxine Hamilton. Later, Hamilton’s versatility is shown by her use of a grotesque masque to express the pain and suffering of a sick woman.
Callum, played by Ben Winger, is portrayed with a convincing physicality, whilst Tom McGovern gives a confident, dominant performance as Duror, whose emotional instability manifests itself in his mental decline. Jennifer Black ( Lady Runcie-Campbell), and Greg Powrie, who plays her brother, are both quite excellent in conveying the contrasting loyalties to class values, and in highlighting a sibling relationship under the intense strain of family and duty. Lady Runcie-Campbell’s son Roddie, portrayed as a cheerful and naïve boy by Helen MacKay, adds to the overall tension especially given the character’s innate sense of social justice. Rodney Matthew’s Tulloch combines pragmatism and compassion, whilst Helen Logan’s Mrs Morton provides humour, insight and kind domesticity – a homely character in contrast to Lady Runcie-Campbell’s taut nerves and dearth of household knowledge.
Although the cone gatherers are catalysts for environmental change, changes in the wider world are also palpable. The ending highlights the possibilities for Roddie’s future, providing hope without diminishing a sense of impending tragedy. An evening taken up going to see The Cone Gatherers is an evening well spent.