When John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast was first shown as a BBC One Play for Today on December 10, 1970, ‘folk horror’ was still some decades away from becoming a popular term. It was a different time: a power cut in certain parts of the country meant that some viewers were left in the dark. It’s with some heavy irony, then, that this new stage version of a piece about the circle of life may also leave audiences in the dark wondering exactly what just happened.

Styled as Robin/Red/Breast, written by Daisy Johnson and directed by Sarah Frankcom, this new stage version at Factory International is an immersive affair, presented in the round with a good portion of it requiring the audience to wear headphones to hear an evocative soundscape and the interior thoughts of Norah, played by Maxine Peake. Norah’s a TV script editor who’s escaped from London and gone through a break-up, relocating to a cottage in the back of beyond  Needless to say, the locals’ ways are not her ways. Much of the detail there is lost, though, as Norah is pretty much the only character we see on stage (her profession, for instance, is just vaguely hinted at in her monologue). There is Rob, a lad from the village, who shows up a few times, but he has no lines. Nor do the only other performers who appear – a ten piece all-female brass band, the members of which pipe Norah onstage and later pop up in various (silent) guises. Essentially, then, this is close to being a one-hander.

Photo: ©Tristram Kenton

The staging is creative and impressive, from the powerful sound design to the simple, effective set. But all told, this takes the TV original and turns it into a baffling, impressionistic piece of storytelling. Norah’s unravelling occurs very swiftly, leaving the narrative nowhere very comprehensible to go, leading to a near stream-of-consciousness finale. 

Some of the tricksiness involved risks feeling like novelty value. Giving every member of the audience headphones that they need to wear occasionally later leads to a steady clunk-clunk-clunk of headphones being knocked off seats in the dark, as it’s bound to. The programme even miscredits the actor who created the role of Norah in the TV original (it was Anna Cropper rather than Amanda Walker, who was in the cast in a different role), which is not a great look.

In all, this takes an an ambitious tilt at some major themes and  it stretches the source material into whole new shapes, In doing so, though, it loses much of the narrative neatness – and indeed the alarming weirdness – of Bowen’s original, actually subtracting from it rather than adding to it (at just under an hour, the stage version runs significantly shorter). For all its boldness, there’s a deadening lack of subtlety here. It’s never more than the sum of its parts and at times it’s outright incoherent. Robin/Red/Breast is certainly an experience, then, but ultimately a rather frustrating one.

By Andy Murray

Photos, including main image, ©Tristram Kenton




Robin/Red/Breast is at Factory International until May 26, 2024 ; https://factoryinternational.org/whats-on/robin-red-breast/