Saturday 14 May 2016

Fresh meat: "Chicken"

There are three vulnerable creatures in the relationships that fascinate the leftfield Brit indie Chicken, and one of them is indeed fowl. For starters, we have two brothers: the deadbeat Polly (Morgan Watkins) who inhabits a grimy caravan on farmland, providing the most basic form of care and shelter for his younger sibling Richard (Scott Chambers). Richard has a developmental disability, yet out this way, he's been granted both time and freedom to run wild and craft meticulous tableaux from the roadkill he finds; with Polly off getting smashed and begging rather hopelessly for work, Richard has formed an attachment to a chicken called Fiona, to whom he rabbits on at length about everything under the sun. Enter Annabelle (Yasmin Paige): teenage scion of a well-to-do family who've escaped to the country, she finds herself stranded with no other companions than these two oddballs. Three, if you count Fiona.

Adapted from a Freddie Machin play by Chris New (one of the leads in Andrew Haigh's very fine Weekend), Chicken's most immediate achievement is that it never feels especially stagebound. Director Joe Stephenson keeps the drama moving across sundappled widescreen frames, and there's something particularly assured in his handling of the first act's multiple shifts of perspective, introducing us first to Richard, at play in the fields of the Lord, then Polly, scrapping to maintain even his current lowly existence, and finally Annabelle, coming to negotiate her own wary path alongside and between the two. Thereafter, Stephenson enjoys grouping his very capable young actors together, attentively observing the ways in which their characters influence and impact upon one another. 

Paige, just as preternaturally poised as she was back in 2011's Submarine, is the obvious standout in the catalyst role, possessed of a spirit and smile that could pull just about any man out of isolation - or at least inspire one of these boys to change their underwear every once in a while. Yet Stephenson elicits equally impressive work from his male leads. Chambers offers a detailed and sensitive rendering of mental impairment, nailing Richard's lolloping run and wavering speech patterns while also suggesting a boundless curiosity as to the world he's been thrust into, and how it might be improved or tidied up a little. Watkins, too, provides a deft, economic sketch of blokey inarticulacy, forever on the verge of violence, expressing himself with his fists in a way he cannot with words; he even spits believably.

If there's not much more to it than a director and writer working closely on a low budget with committed performers, the false notes Chicken strikes are unusually few and far between. Yes, the final act, in which New and Stephenson nudge their players into a confined space and set them to pouring out everything they've kept locked up inside them, does seem to derive from the fringier outposts of fringe theatre. By then, however, I think you care enough about these characters' fates for the sudden narrowing of focus not to be an issue, and here the three leads do some of their most heartrending work, as Machin lays out the full extent of the brothers' damage, and wonders how it might be repaired. A fair amount of promise and talent has been gathered up within these 86 minutes; as both performer and flightless metaphor, the chicken's pretty good, too.

Chicken opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

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