Friday 4 November 2016 1:46 pm

The Nest at the Young Vic: this play with a PJ Harvey soundtrack never quite clicks

The Nest is the story of a couple preparing for the birth of their first child. It has slick dialogue, fine acting, simple but effective sets, and an impressive original score by PJ Harvey, but somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Based on a 1975 German work by Franz Xaver Kroetz, The Nest tells the story of lorry driver Kurt (Laurence Kinlan) and his heavily pregnant wife Martha (Caoilfhionn Dunne). Kurt is desperate for overtime to cover the mounting costs of their new arrival, and when his boss offers him an off-the-books job disposing of mysterious liquid waste, he leaps at the chance for extra cash, setting in train a series of events that lead with mechanistic inevitability to disaster.

Dublin playwright Conor McPherson’s new translation moves the action from the economic miracle of post-War West Germany, to the economic uncertainty of post-Crisis Ireland; the updated setting lacks the resonance of the original, where an examination of unquestioning acceptance of authority invited the audience to consider their national complicity in the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust.

The adaptation’s German roots remain evident, however, sometimes undermining the verisimilitude McPherson tries so hard to cultivate; perhaps Kurt’s mother was a fan of The Sound of Music, but Martha and Stefan should probably have been re-christened Mary and baby Stevie.

Sharing the tone and subtlety of a Ken Loach film, The Nest quickly shifts from kitchen sink realism to political melodrama about the urban precariat, then to EastEnders Christmas special, touching upon full-blown tragedy, before circling back to a sort of social realism, combining domesticity with a hint of trade union propaganda. This final realignment isn’t particularly exciting, but it’s probably necessary for the audience to catch its breath after watching the rapid, brutal self-destruction of a flawed but well-intentioned man they’d only just met.

The play’s frequent moments of levity, its flashes of affection between the actors, are consistently undermined by a rising level of anguish, which becomes increasingly oppressive and unpleasant to watch.

They say time flies when you’re having fun, and although The Nest clocks in at a modest 90 minutes, it seems to stretch on much, much longer.