john biggins
Writing


Theatre reviews

If Destroyed True
Dundee Rep/Paines Plough at Meniers Chocolate Factory, 28.4.05


A puzzling concoction, Douglas Maxwell’s If Destroyed True could be a tautly-written, accessible comedy about municipal corruption and the perils of being gay in an isolated, backward-looking community. But it isn’t, quite.

Set in run-down Flood, Dundee Rep’s production, in conjunction with Paines Plough at Menier’s Chocolate Factory, throws up the author’s poetical interspersions (graphically presented in the script) onto a huge screen, whilst the story unravels on a set which looks like a collision between Jackson Pollock and a ‘70s TIE project, where minimalist white benches serve as anything from desks to high rise flats.

It’s not entirely successful, though one senses that there is a terrific play in there desperate to get out. The setting, and poetical interjections give little sense of place, and serve only to distance the audience from the very real dramas being played out in the piece. We know the main character, Vincent, is an artist, but do we need the entire thing to look and sound like a piece of conceptual art? It’s reminiscent of when directors and designers muscle in on a comedy by dressing the actors in silly costumes, parading them around a whacky set painted in hilarious colours, with equally knockabout angles thrusting themselves zanily at the audience. And the point of the author’s visual punctuations is way beyond me; if the script is good enough (and it is) and the piece delivered with sufficient skill (which it is), the audience shouldn’t need to be pushed in the direction of important plot lines or have the subtext spelt out to them. Or perhaps it’s all a device to drive home the alienating effect of the internet age, a theme which emerges well into the second half? Whatever.


Over Gardens Out
Southwark Playhouse, 7.4.05


One day, Peter Gill's writing for the stage will be recognised alongside his considerable contribution as a director. Until that time we're indebted to enterprising companies such as The Motion Group for the odd revival.

In Over Gardens Out at The Southwark Playhouse we encounter familiar Gill themes: a bright youth struggles with stifling working-class domesticity whilst wrestling with his sexuality. He is both attracted to and appalled by his mother, in the way of most teenagers, and is equally drawn to and revolted by his wayward and dangerous friend.

Set in the South Wales of Gill's youth, this short, early piece hints at a more substantial work lurking beneath, as some of the relationships remain tantalisingly sketchy. As a study of disaffected early 'sixties youth, though, it's way ahead of its time. The writing is rich, engaging, funny, at times sparse, but always authentic.

The performances are uniformly committed; director Andrew Steggall has assembled a polished cast. Tom Curtis's design is a delight; washing strung over the stage and auditorium, gradually removed to define locations.

Newcomer Ryan Sampson has the meatiest part and is excellent as restless Dennis, trapped between man and boy, unsure whether to curl up with his mother in the armchair or run with his slightly deranged older mate. It's a performance of considerable weight and guile and is in itself worth the entrance money.

As Jeffrey, Jeremy Joyce embodies all the loose menace of the rootless teenager, all horseplay and predatory homosexuality. Phillip Joseph's kindly yet infuriatingly taciturn father is a delight, as is Dido Miles's comfy, unwell mother, in turns rejecting and then enthralled by her son's terrifying possibilities.

It's a graceful piece, staged with considerable verve, and performed with skill and panache. The writing is both enigmatic and lucid and effortlessly conveys the mood of its time and the social constructs at odds with Dennis's emerging sexual leanings. And rarely can the word 'ginger' have taken on such delightfully unexpected connotationsÉ

Shame nobody thought to pair the piece with another of Gill's short domestic dramas. At just over an hour in length the evening ends all too early!


The Girl With The Red Hair
Hampstead Theatre, 23.3.05


It's not that there's much wrong with The Girl With Red Hair, Sharman Macdonald's new play, transferred from the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh to the Hampstead Theatre. It's just that there's very little in it to write home about either.

The acting is pretty solid, there's an atmospheric set, sensitive use of lighting, and the piece is directed with a deft touch by Mike Bradwell. The writing is not without its charms either, coaxing the odd whimsical laugh from decently drawn characters, its language measured and on occasion tastefully elliptical.

MacDonald's story, however, is like a long, mordant sigh. A remote seaside community in the north east of Scotland is represented episodically by various inhabitants, and a lonely truck driver passing through. There's a sombre, grieving waitress, a smattering of loose teenagers and a pair of squabbling pensioners. A day spent in the company of these folk reveals that they are all emerging from a bereavement, principally the death of local girl Roslyn, a musical17 year-old who was killed when her bass player fell asleep at the wheel exactly a year before.

As the evening descends, Cath, Roslyn's mother, finally succumbs to the gaelic charms of her jocular diner Stuart, and smiles again. Pam refuses to play re-enactments of the dead girl's life with her dysfunctional friend Izzy. Matt, Roslyn's boyfriend, plucks his last mournful tune on his guitar and takes up with the comely Corinne. And the oldsters, after enduring a bit of an incident with a fishbone, half hint at adultery and reveal a long-lost son, recently dead. A little dance at the end, as Matt strums a few hopeful chords, signals everyone's tentative emergence from the stultifying constrictions of protracted grief.

Perhaps I'm missing the point somewhere, but I seemed to get the message of this play in the first 15 minutes: people are sad when a loved-one dies, behave a little strangely for a while, and eventually learn to live with it. MacDonald's play appears to have the stamp of Ôcontractual obligation' on it. Put simply, the playwright – commissioned by The Bush Theatre - has written a relatively harmless, perfectly acceptable play which says nothing new or particularly interesting about its subject. The dialogue is convincing, and serves a wide range of characters, but the narrative fails to entice.

Robin Don's set – stage rocks and wind-beaten houses aplenty - and bathed lovingly in Gerry Jenkinson's lights – is cosy, if a little dated and inconsistent. Did the brief, rather pointless scene in Cath's bedroom really justify a painted window when others were clearly constructed in three dimensions?

Christopher Dunne's Stuart is appropriately benign, Patricia Kerrigan as Cath thaws pleasingly, Sandra Voe and Sheila Reid, as the OAPs, entertain as they contemplate their final destinations, and the youngsters look and sound authentic enough. It's just a shame the material wasn't there to challenge either audience or ensemble a little more.

If you're looking for an antidote to the nihilistic offerings of the Shopping and Fucking generation, then MacDonald's snapshots of Fife life are carefully composed and comfortably soft-focus. For sharper edges look elsewhere.


Mercury Fur by Philip Ridley
Paines Plough at Menier's Chocolate Factory, 2 March 2005


If the words 'apocalyptic', 'harrowing' and 'nihilistic' in the first paragraph of a theatre review normally propel you to turn the page, you'd be as well giving Mercury Fur, Philip Ridley's new play at Menier's Chocolate Factory, a wide birth. Pity, really, because the work has much to commend it.

Alarm bells began to ring in the opening exchanges between hooded youths Elliot and Darren, a pair of edgy, desperate brothers who've broken into a derelict London flat armed with a barrage of foul-mouthed abuse and a plan to use the place for a mysterious 'party'. Surely those over-elaborate verbal outbursts couldn't mean that Paines Plough has fallen for another load of pretentious clap-trap hard on the heels of The Small Things, the company's disappointing first offering in their Engage season, launched to investigate the English language?

It's only after the first ten minutes or so, when you realise that we're in a parallel - or future – reality, that it all begins to make sense; the strange bonding rituals, the unfamiliar, repetitive insults, the linguistic quirks amidst an almost total absence of consistent human behaviour.

Director John Tiffany and his cast have combined to conjure an uncomfortable and convincing world of casual racism, brutality and drug dependence, which is admirably sustained and utterly compelling. And although the play's overly bleak message might sit more appropriately alongside Maggie Thatcher's 'eighties dictum that there aint no such thing as society - just individuals and families, Ridley's unrelenting script is administered by the ensemble with all the venomous precision of a filthy hypodermic.

Ben Whishaw's twitchy Elliot nods in the direction of David Thewlis's bile-ridden council estate savant manque Johnny, from Mike Leigh's Naked, and the whole set-up is reminiscent of Edward Bond at his vilest, with a touch of Reservoir Dogs thrown in.

The boys are setting up an event at which a wealthy punter pays big money to live out his ultimate Vietnam torture fantasy, culminating in the sex-killing of an innocent child dressed as Elvis. It's a fucked up world where history is garbled and reality is diverted through the prism of powerful new street drugs called 'butterflies'.

There's a squeamish transvestite Lola (an elegant Harry Kent), and a hallucinating aristo who thinks she's Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (Sophie Stanton), and the piece is stamped with shockingly detailed accounts of beatings, beheadings and rape in a world of total social collapse, where firearms are randomly toted to punctuate moments of both conflict and kinship.

But it's not without its lighter moments; Shane Zaza is an engagingly innocent Naz who, after stumbling into the brothers' abyss, undergoes a harrowing attack when the intended sacrificial victim thankfully drops dead from what appears to be a drug overdose. And amidst the mayhem there's astonishing human warmth and very real pathos.

Even if I didn't quite buy the writer's rather melodramatic, predictably violent and rather haphazard conclusion, the audience, ranged opposite one another either side of the stage, seemed genuinely moved and shocked.

A word of warning: at curtain up you're led from the bar down a dark alley, through the murky bowels of the set, to emerge blinking on stage. One unfortunate audience member found himself wrestling a filthy armchair to the floor en route to his seat, while others tripped over dangerously positioned stage detritous. Tread carefully.


Strictly Dandia
Tamasha Theatre at the Lyric, Hammersmith, 9.2.05


Since its humble beginnings in the late 'eighties Tamasha Theatre has been producing pertinent and inventive work from what can loosely be termed 'an Asian perspective'. Now returned to the Lyric Hammersmith prior to a short tour, Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith's latest venture Strictly Dandia is a colourful and exciting addition to this enterprising company's body of work.

Notwithstanding a rather cheesy ending, which betrays all the hallmarks of having been hastily bolted on, Strictly Dandia is a vibrant piece of theatre; very funny, visually arresting, with brave subject matter, terrific movement and 'wicked' tunes. The familiar Tamasha themes are there in abundance: religious prejudice, divided filial loyalties, traditional versus contemporary values, social integration against isolation. If it's not the most original narrative – Romeo and Juliet set against a Bhangra beat – the dialogue is as witty and arresting as anything you'd find elsewhere and is testament to the astounding malleability of the English language to such an extent that I occasionally shot grateful glances at the surtitle device conveniently placed above the stage.

Set in North London, the play takes as its springboard the preparations for a dance contest in which the Gujarati dandia – a sort of Morris dance with hip-hop moves – takes centre stage. As an event, the competition serves both as a meeting place for would-be-weds and a fertile breeding ground for family feuds and rivalries. Youngsters Preethi and Raza are clearly the most stylish partnership around, though Preethi is so concerned about the official reaction to her teaming up with a Muslim that she introduces her cohort as Raj. Add to this an ambitious dance teacher who's fending off his father's desire to see him run a newsagent's shop, a crumbling marriage, a gaggle of over-bearing parents, some excitable youths, and a couple of sage old-timers, and the stage is set for heated debate over the spicy papadoms. And the prize for winning this keenly-fought terpsichorean tussle? Apart from the prestige and the possibility of landing the love of your life, and a lucrative job in a TV commercial, there's a handy foot massage machine, donated by a local electrical retailers.

As the star-crossed lovers Preethi and Raza, Fiona Wade and Paul Tilley let the steps do the talking, and thankfully they execute them with considerable charm and skill, as there's little in the script to flesh out their mutual attraction.

There's a jolly comic turn from Shiv Grewal and Rina Fatania as Popatlal and Hina Shah – this pair deserve a sitcom all to themselves, and some finely-judged suburban desperation from co-writer Sudha Bhuchar as Preethi's well-meaning mum Prema.

Director Landon-Smith moves the action along pleasingly, with well-chosen musical underscoring, and at a pace which doesn't obliterate the subtext. And the parents' genteel ballroom dancing at the top of act two is hilarious.

I suspect, given the episodic structure of the piece, the script has been developed with an eye on a future screen adaptation, so look out for the movie version soon. And given the support of one John Prescott, as listed in the programme, we shouldn't be surprised if Tamasha Theatre go on to even greater things in the future. Just keep him away from the doodh pak.


The Small Things
Plough at The Chocolate Factory, 3.2.05


Inspired by Melvyn Bragg's lucid and entertaining radio series The Routes of English, Paines Plough's new season of plays at The Chocolate Factory takes our mother tongue and its various manifestations as its departure point. Though if Enda Walsh's bafflingly opaque opener The Small Things is anything to go by, audiences are in for a rough ride. Because not even a sparkling new venue, a full house, nor two terrific performers can rescue this mushy piece from a very dark place deep inside its own posterior.

We open with a huge patchwork of cheap material for a curtain, and an imposing drummer beating out an ominous rythm. The drum roll ends, the curtain falls and we are left with a huge corridor of a set upon which are seated two elderly folk, a man and a woman. The chairs in which they are perched, like everything else – the coffee table, alarm clock, window, collection of knick-knacks – appear to be hovering in mid air. An intriguing enough opening suggesting a transitory state, a limbo between life and death, perhaps.

As soon as one speaks, however, the evening takes a nose-dive, never fully to recover. Director Vicky Featherstone has opted for a relentlessly breathless delivery throughout; fine for implying urgency, but frustrating in terms of clarity.

Add to that Walsh's at best impressionistic, at worst hopelessly confusing script and the end result is an unsatisfactory 0-0 draw.

The two performers (Bernard Gallagher and Val Lilley) battle gamely with the words, teasing out as much humour as they can, but this is a piece clearly designed to showcase the writer's skill with words rather than his ability to use them to build character and coax involvement.

Throwing out semi-coherent snippets of narrative involving juvenile love and the cutting out of tongues by a father and a fish and chip shop owner may work as a narrative on the page, or even on radio, but in the theatre it provides little in terms of visuals and even less interaction between the characters, such as they are. For the script is so littered with writerly metaphor and incongruous vocabulary (when was the last time you heard a 70 year-old declare ÔI was dead excited'?) that Walsh is inviting us to by-pass the usual currency of the stage and engage directly with his verbal pyrotechnics. And, on this evidence at least, Dylan Thomas he most certainly isn't.

When my mother was dying, stranded in a hospital bed, unable to move, hooked up to every available drug and appliance and deprived of her independence, she had a recurring dream that she was breathlessly racing up and down the ward. Enda Walsh's play, preoccupied with its own agenda, to my mind lacks such authenticity; Jim Cartwright without the insight and humour.

Paines Plough has developed an imaginative and promising season of work. Let's hope the rest of it is a little more accessible.


Old King Cole
The Cochrane Theatre, 2.12.04


Ken Campbell's dastardly comedy for kids Old King Cole is a well-travelled piece. It even attracted the attention of stern-faced German academics in the 'seventies, who saw the show's sausage-chomping trap-meister, the amazing Faz, as a thinly-disguised satire on the Frankfurter Allemagne Zeitung newspaper.

Political allegory aside, the show, presently manifested at the Cochrane Theatre, reminds us of how rare it is to find genuinely amusing seasonal fare for children; an anarchically silly satire which neither patronises its audience nor relies on crummy recycled pop songs and 'c' list celebs for its appeal.

The story is sublimely stupid. Faz and his feeble-minded assistant Twoo, whilst setting a fiendishly ingenious rat trap for the pesky rodent they believe has been nibbling at their sausages, inadvertently drop their 'paraphernalia' case on weedy Baron Wadd, hopeless misfit and suitor to Old King Cole's troublesome daughter Daphne.

Jump to Wembley stadium, where the pleasingly peripheral King has set up a sporting contest between the preferred candidate, sleek, handsome, sporty Cyril the Fiddler, and the puny Baron, and we have opportunities galore for dirty tricks and extreme silliness, as we follow the boxing, long jump and fencing competitions, guided by a suitably earnest commentator.

The second half transports us into the corridors of Buckingham Palace, where we witness Faz and Twoo's attempts, via the 'Messy Clothes Wag Trap' - and eagerly assisted by members of the audience - to disrupt Daphne's wedding to the dashing, muscle-bound, suntanned Cyril.

Got the picture? The show's pure Beano and Dandy, with a hint of Dashiel Hammett, and pokes uproarious fun at the goody-goody stuff which used to be shoved at kids through the pages of The Eagle and is still peddled in pantos and kids' shows the length and breadth of the country.

And why isn't there more of it? The night I was there it was difficult to decide who was laughing loudest, the kids, encouraged to scream at Cyril then blow him over, or their parents, guffawing at the sheer lunacy of it all.

Campbell's script has been tinkered with to bring it up-to-date, and there's the odd song here and there, but essentially it's the same show that's been doing the business with both young and old since 1967. Maybe it's time Campbell, chuckling in the audience with what appeared to be three generations of his family, set Faz and Twoo, and their astounding gifts for trap-based mischief on Robin Hood, Dick Whittington et al, sparing parents the drudgery of dragging their offspring to dreary pantos year after year.

And though the cast at The Cochrane could do with sharpening up their delivery here and there, it's an engaging production, suitably idiotic, and brimming with inventive slapstick, daft sound effects and eccentric props. And the kids love every minute of it.

Charismatic Nick Hagget as The Amazing Faz, and Ben Fox, his twittish sidekick, make a fine double act, plotting and scheming to no great effect other than that of general mayhem. James Cash struts his muscles – and red underpants – to hilarious effect, whilst Baron Wadd (Daniel Crute) falls over his bandy legs a lot. Leah Fletcher (Daphne), Malcolm James (King), and Angela Bain (Queen Brenda) squabble much like our own dysfunctional Royals, and Simon Nock's enigmatic pauses, as the M.C., may well attract the attention of the German academics unless he's very careful.

If, like me, you find the sound of kids' laughter irresistible, then make sure Old King Cole is on your list of attractions this festive season. Better still, book to see it twiceÉjust to make absolutely sure.

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How To Behave Around Cops and Vote Dizzy!
Soho Theatre, 22.10.04


When I first visited the US in 1978 the place seemed refreshingly freewheeling compared to the restrictive dowdiness and political turpitude of 'old' Labour's last gasp. These days, the land of the free is decidedly jumpy, paranoid and absurdly over-regulated.

With this autumn's presidential election fast approaching, The Soho Theatre presents us with virtually a double bill of new work which neatly rings the changes in America in the last forty years. Early doors it's Logan Brown and Matthew Benjamin's award-winning short play How To Act Around Cops, and then later in the evening Vote Dizzy, Jake Broder's amiable cabaret-style tribute to hip pseudo aristocrat Lord Buckley, slides into view.

Around Cops is substantially the weightier piece. A couple of jumpy young dudes apparently have something to hide as they pull their car over after being pursued by a cop. Paranoia is very much the order of the evening as the lawman is quickly infected by the hysteria and is instrumental in the death of one of the guys.

Cut to a seedy motel room where a black law student and his PVC-clad girlfriend are acting out a restraining fantasy. Enter said cop, convinced the boys from earlier had concealed a girl's body in the room, and you have further screaming and mayhem, with gagging devices and handcuffs exchanged aplenty.

It's a taut, slippery, Kafkaesque script where nothing is set in stone. And even when it appears to be it's then smashed to pieces and hurled all over the place. Parallels can easily be drawn with Hitchcock's Psycho, complete with a coke-eating Norman Bates figure dragging around a body (appropriately wrapped in a shower curtain). And with its menacing 'body in the boot' sub-plot there's more than a hint of David Lynch.

In a uniformly fine cast Andrew Breving and Matthew Benjamin wrestle with the script's non-sequiturs admirably, as, caught in Christoph Wagner's excellent lighting, they crank up the neurosis levels early on. Chris Kipiniak's Cop threatens some form of moral certainty but it's soon clear that he's as fucked up as the rest; a finely judged performance. And Daniel Breaker and Flora Diaz, as the hygiene-obsessed sexual experimenters, are equally convincing. Can a deviant couple get no privacy around this place?

Jon Schumacher's direction is spot-on, and, as a measure of contemporary American psychoses, How To Behave Around Cops is an evening not to be missed.

Nip out for a quick drink and before you know it Vote Dizzy is replacing the guns, corpses and restraining devices with an altogether more laid-back beat. Apparently, jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie ran for president in the 'sixties on a platform of cool sounds and hip banter. Jake Broder's entertaining late-night cabaret imagines what self-styled aristo of scat Lord Buckley would have made of Dizzy's election rally.

It's essentially plotless fun, a neat platform for Broder's substantial performing talents, though he's ably assisted by David Tughan as both hip newsreader and a whispering, typically iconoclastic Lenny Bruce. There's also a pretty tight three piece jazz combo – worth the entrance money alone, I would have thought.


Dirty Blonde
Duke of York's Theatre, 23.6.04


Full marks to Claudia Shear for conceiving, writing and starring in Dirty Blonde (Duke of York's Theatre). Fine actress and mimic though she is, however, she doesn't quite possess that unmistakable, smouldering sexuality with which Mae West backed up her salacious repartee. Once having got the show on the road I'd have been tempted into a little judicious re-casting.

The evening is a modest affair, amusing and undemanding, and with a cast of three on a wide, flashy set, seems somewhat lost in the Duke of York's. I would love to have seen it in a more intimate venue.

No matter, there's much else to commend the production, not least of which being the excellent Bill Stillman and Kevin Chamberlain, both as adept at tinkling the ivories as they are dashing between a bewildering array of characters. It's as fine a display of character acting as you'll see anywhere, and a delight to behold.

Switching seamlessly between West's burgeoning vaudeville, movie and cabaret career, and the developing love affair between Shear's frumpy Jo and Chamberlain's geeky Charlie, both hopeless West devotees, we're invited to conclude that the self-styled Dirty Blonde's obsessively sluttish persona has been a liberating influence on straight-laced America, and a genuine force for good.

There are enough of West's bons mots scattered around to keep everyone happy, though in the end we're no nearer knowing what lay behind this extraordinary woman's facade. I'm not looking for evidence of a disturbed childhood necessarily, just a new angle to flesh out the two dimensionality.

Most effective are the scenes involving the younger Charlie, invited into West's Hollywood residence after hovering about at the gates with his scrapbook, the awkward teenager is first treated to dinner with his heroine and then prompted into dressing up as West and parading in the garden for the benefit of sightseers.

It's a startling invention, and one which might well have made a play in itself. Holed up in her musty hideaway, a frail West, now in her eighties yet still convinced she has the body of a twenty six year-old, quips away merrily, but now with an air of desperation redolent of Norma Desmond, a role she reputedly dismissed when it was offered. Ever-present in these scenes is Stillman, as West's croaking companion Paul Novak, cigar clamped resolutely between his teeth, doubled up with age. It's a stunning transformation, after only seconds before the actor had strutted around as the younger Novak, flexing his biceps with Chamberlain, as members of West's camp chorus of cabaret bodybuilders The Adonises.

West made a career out of imitating men imitating women, and there's an hilarious backstage transvestite scene, mirrored in the parallel story, when Charlie finally reveals his cross dressing tendencies to Jo, and they both dress up as West for Hallowe'en.

In the end, though, West's rugged piquancy remains a mystery in the face of Jo and Charlie's stuttering love affair. And we're left wondering what was really going on beneath that famous peroxide wig.


Blues For Mr Charlie
Tricycle Theatre, 19.6.04


One can only shudder at the effect James Baldwin's Blues For Mr Charlie – based on a true story - had on the conservative theatre-going public of America in 1964, for such is the power of its unremitting fury and provocative take on race, religion and sexuality.

There are parallels between the play and Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird: both deal with the effects on a southern community of racially motivated crime - Baldwin's play acquitting a white man for the murder of a negro, a crime he had so clearly committed, Lee's malicious white jury convicting a black man for a rape of which he was patently innocent.

But where Lee's novel highlights the learnt origins of racism by channeling its anger through a twelve year-old child, Baldwin plays straight through the testosterone-charged world of angry young men, dealing explicitly - and for the first time - with the sexual tensions underpinning much ethnic hatred and suspicion.

In both stories there's a liberal white man straddling two communities: Lee's gentlemanly lawyer Atticus Finch is a passionate and noble advocate of natural justice in the eyes of his daughter Scout; Baldwin's troubled newspaper man Parnell James, on the other hand, is altogether more complex; dissolute and elastic, taken to the very edge of his moral universe by Baldwin's subtle probings.

The play, as presented in a co-production between the Wolsey Theatre and Talawa at The Tricycle, is a challenging combination, the playwright mixing the virile rebelliousness of On The Waterfont with the snarling sensuality of Tennessee Williams, and appropriating Arthur Miller's ear for dialogue, eye for religious hypocrisy, and nose for the stinking truth.

Paulette Randall's compelling and fluid production manages the fury and poetry with considerable skill, though she's helped by some quite breathtaking performances. Michael Price, as hip dude Richard, recently returned from the big city after kicking a heroin habit, is perfect; strutting his new-found indignation dangerously in the face of white bewilderment and enmity - 'Did you think we would pay for your ease forever?' he spits at his accuser. As his father, Meridian, Ray Shell is magnificent - in turns thoughtful, rousing and dismissive. Difficult to imagine the part played by anyone else.

Barnaby Kay is equally convincing, serving the volatile Britten with potent measures of insecurity, ignorance, affection, puzzlement and barbarity. Rolf Saxon, as the flawed Parnell, is both measured and compelling - a man torn between conflicting allegiances, crossing social, sexual, religious and racial divides. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is a fine-voiced Juanita, touching and humane, yet steely when the stakes are raised.

The writing lacks a certain dramatic tension in the second half, as the courtroom takes centre stage. The witnesses' monologues are a touch predictable, and though Roger Barclay's entertaining defence counsel moves judicial affairs along briskly, such is our certainty of Lyle Britten's culpability that the jury's verdict is almost taken as read. Or perhaps that's the point. Britten's valedictory admission of guilt, however, is a forceful sting in the tail and effectively ties up Baldwin's retrospective storyline.

And if the earlier scenes with the white folks teeter on the verge of satire, it's only because Baldwin has accurately identified that caricature is what these people aspired to 1964, blithely averting their eyes from the issues which fuelled the fledgling civil rights movement.

The evening's a long one - don't expect the pubs to be open when you come out - but well worth it. Its length necessitates that the customary Southern drawl is rather hurried at times, and Richard's verbal fireworks consequently lack sufficient contrast. But it's an important play, and one which, were it not for its large cast, would surely have become a stalwart of the progressive liberal repertoire. And while some of the rancour may have died down in the intervening years, its wider concerns remain relevant and are bravely tackled. Catch it while you can.


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