The story begins with a young man, Harry, rescuing an older man, Ben, from drowning in a river. And yet it looks less like an accident and more like an attempted suicide. The young man works at a local pub that’s closing, likely to become an art gallery or antique shop. He meets an older woman named Cat (for Catherine) at the pub, and her flirting has more than edge to it; it seems almost self-destructive. And he meets a young woman, known only as Loops, dressed in camouflage, who tells him she’s a soldier.
The young man will learn that the man, the woman, and the girl are nothing like what they first seem like – a would-be suicide, a woman on the make, and a soldier who talks military but doesn’t seem military. In fact, they are a family, struggling to understand themselves, what their lives have become and to be reborn.
Only gradually do we see that their struggle has to do with the death of the family’s son, who killed himself. The story of that struggle is Mayfly, a debut play by young British playwright Joe White,which debuted earlier this at the Orange Street Theatre in off-West-End London (analagous to off-Broadway in New York).
The story is set in Shropshire, in central England. It might be easy to overlook since it doesn’t have an overtly critical role in the story; in a sense, the play could be set anywhere. But White has placed it Shropshire, often considered the heart of England Shropshire is the setting for A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, that long narrative poem that was so popular among soldiers in World War I. It was what the soldiers considered home as they sat in the mud and the lice of the trenches, watching their mates die of disease, mustard gas, and artillery shells.
In Mayfly, Shropshire is England’s heart, but the family in that heart is broken and trying to reconstitute itself. The characters are not trying to tear each other apart so much as tearing themselves apart, desperate to find a meaning from the personal tragedy.
White has been associated with the Orange Tree Writers Collective and a “playwright on attachment” at Pentabus Theatre Company. He’s also been a member of the Old Vic 12, a group of young theater writers and producers selected by the Old Vic Theatre to nurture the next generation of theatre creatives.
Mayfly is unsettling and often disturbing, exactly what you’d expect a family to be when it finds itself unmoored and adrift.
Top photograph: A scene from the production of Mayfly in April 2018.