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Evocative telling of First World War-era poet Nick Dear’s last years is as much about his wife Helen, writes Julia Rank

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Nick Dear’s biographical play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky charts the last few years of Edward Thomas’s life, in which he finally realised his ambition to be a poet, writing his entire body of 143 poems in the three years before he was killed in the First World War at the age of 39 on what could be seen as a suicide mission.

Born in Lambeth in 1878, Thomas, who is probably best known for his poem Adlestrop, had his first book published when he was 18, after which he attended Oxford and entered the civil service, which he left after three weeks. His young family lived a precarious existence in Hampshire as Thomas scraped a living as an essayist and critic while suffering bouts of depression.

Dear’s script certainly doesn’t romanticise Thomas – the poet whom Ted Hughes called ‘The father of us all’ ignored his own children and was crushingly insensitive towards his wife, Helen (he comments that he wouldn’t want to confuse her by being too nice). Pip Carter imbues this contradictory figure with palpable nerviness, obsessive about preserving nature and bent on self-destruction, exemplified in the scene when he holds a baby in one arm and a pistol in the other.

Hattie Morahan convincingly portrays unwavering devotion as the put-upon Helen. Shaun Dooley is a robust presence as fellow poet and kindred spirit Robert Frost, a gung-ho American with all the forthrightness that Thomas lacked. There’s also good support from Pandora Colin as Thomas’s spinsterish handmaiden, the children’s writer Eleanor Farjeon, and Ifan Huw Dafydd as Thomas’s quintessentially Victorian father.

Richard Eyre’s evocative and understated production set on a soil-covered stage is pleasingly simple and ultimately as much about Helen as it is about Thomas – as well as delving into his poems, it would be fascinating to read her memoirs.

* The Dark Earth and the Light Sky is at the Almeida Theatre until January 12.

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