A real corker of a play

PUBLISHED: 18:08 22 July 2009 | UPDATED: 17:28 16 August 2010

WILD: The cast of Jerusalem.

WILD: The cast of Jerusalem.

FIRST off, this is the single most enjoyable and moving piece of theatre I have had the good fortune to see, writes Lizzie Thornton.

FIRST off, this is the single most enjoyable and moving piece of theatre I have had the good fortune to see, writes Lizzie Thornton.

Swinging irreverently from wild humour and fantastical storytelling to plaintive contemplation and savage violence, Jerusalem is a corker of a play and pulls off its three-hour running time with ease.

Set in the bucolic and shambolic home of Johnny 'Rooster' Byron - a caravan in a Wiltshire woodland - the play has an end-of-the-world feel about it. Old England is over, New England is arriving and there is no place for gypsies like Byron in the 'council's woods'.

Opening with an emerald fairy sweetly singing Jerusalem alone on stage, the play abruptly changes gear and blasts insane drum and bass at the audience as the curtains go up, revealing a free party at Byron's place of epic proportions.

Cut to morning and Byron is being served with an eviction notice, but he takes it in his stride and proceeds to down a cocktail of off-milk, egg yolk, vodka and speed.

Played by the very watchable Mark Rylance, he is an immensely likeable character, full of stories, surrounded by a mashed-up posse of under-agers, permanently agog at his rollicking, if not entirely factual tales. Like the 90 foot giant he happened upon one morning, whom he got chatting to about the weather and who modestly revealed he 'done' Stonehenge.

Mackenzie Crook is perfectly cast as Byron's faithful friend. His commonsense and disbelief at some of Byron's more 'imaginative' stories are an amusing tonic to the wild extravagance of the play.

Set on St George's Day, the play explores what it means to be English and the contrast of the village fete against speed-snorting, of 'Rooster's woods against the New Estate and the 'hoodies' against the eccentric aristocrat (played by Alan David) are poignant and long-lasting images.

Jez Butterworth adeptly mixes up the different sides of 'Englishness', for example, Byron's friend sides with the law on Byron's eviction and quickly distances himself, but after getting roped into Morris Dancing at the fete, he comes to see his old friend and, desperate for some whizz, agrees to do a dance for Byron and his cohorts.

The hilarity and lightness quickly evaporate, however, when a local girl, who has gone missing, is found at Byron's place. Her possessive 'father' comes and gives Byron the kicking of his life. We are left to decide for ourselves if Byron is really a good sort, as he appears, or if he is more sinister than we thought.

This is a rollercoaster of a play and I loved the wild ride.

* Jerusalem at the Royal Court in Sloane Square until August 15. Box office: 020 7565 5000; website Mondays, all tickets £10. Tuesdays to Saturdays £12, £18 or £25.

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