OFS reviewer and volunteer usher Lucy saw Fifteen Years of Granite, July 2022.
Saturday 16 July, 6.30pm, and I have snuck away from a party to usher (and review) 15 Years of Granite, a play by Fifth Knuckle that has intrigued me since I first noticed it nestled in the programme for Offbeat. It’s about a disappearance, but there’s little else I know, except that the synopsis was coy enough to snag and intrigue. The drama studio is an oasis, its atmosphere cool and calm beneath the blowing fans. People sit casually, barring the actor, who’s sat up at the front on stage, but in the corner of it: body rigid, eyes wide and petrified. It looks like he’s being tortured. The lights dim, he rises, makes it to the centre of the stage and speaks into the microphone, shrugging off his torment for a moment. His manner is light but his shoulders are heavy as he introduces himself as Alex (Alexander Dover) and cracks a couple jokes.
Soon no one is laughing. 15 Years of Granite is incredibly dark, it deals in hidden horror. We soon discover that Alex’s initial mask of terror best befits it. But the light-heartedness is becoming, it lends the play a sense of earnestness. Pulling us in gently, it also causes us to question ourselves. But we do not question Alex: he is believable to the point we almost forget where we are. Are we in the drama studio, or a self-help meeting? Is this an obscure pub on the edge of Dartmoor? It has a confessional quality and drips in authenticity – the writing backs itself up. For example, Alex refers to recently acquired “veneers” to explain the reappearance of teeth that were knocked out by his father when he was ten years old. He later refers to newspaper articles and police reports.
It is a play about abuse and exploitation. Alex the child is abused physically and psychologically by his father. He is abused emotionally by his alcoholic, often-catatonic mother; and she is in turn abused and beaten by the father of her child. The domestic environment is the definition of toxic; it is palpable with fear. Alex is unable to speak out against his father. While his mother escapes through drink, he escapes through roaming Dartmoor. He tries to cope by not being there but as a child, his autonomy is limited: he has to suffer under his father, he doesn’t have a choice. But he does have a choice in the stories he can tell his friend, Freddie, at school. Instead of the truth, he concocts an altercation with a ‘ghost’. This isn’t entirely fiction: Alex is convinced he’s seen a ghost in the barn and together they plan to go and look for it. 15 Years of Granite is about real-life ghosts. It examines trauma and the ambiguity of memory. There is a haunted, hallucinatory quality to its telling. It is about real monsters and the hidden horrors of the everyday.
These horrors are portrayed in the domestic sphere, and also on a larger and more complex scale. Alex’s father abuses his family, but he is also part of a bigger network of exploitation. The writer and director of 15 Years of Granite, John Archer, explains that a key influence in its writing was a recent incident in Essex where 39 people were found dead in a lorry, having been smuggled into the UK. He also adds that Devon and Cornwall police frequently discover evidence of human trafficking and slavery rings operating around Dartmoor (where people are stored in isolated barns, remains are discovered etc.) A native of the area, he also speaks (both in the play and out of it) about its desolate, drop-dead and breathtaking beauty. There is a duality to it: it is inspiring and imposing, fair yet fatal, magnificent and malignant. Fertile, it is lined with graves. 15 Years of Granite is eerie, atmospheric and absorbing. It is a 35 minute interlude into the darkest depths of Dartmoor.