john biggins

Theatre reviews

Burleigh Grimes
Bridewell Theatre, 8.6.04

Roger W. Kirby's Burleigh Grimes, at The Bridewell Theatre takes its name from the last baseball pitcher allowed to alter the flight of the ball by adding spittle to its surface before hurling it at an opponent. The authorities, mindful of a fatality, outlawed the practice in 1919, but allowed a handful of pitchers, whose livelihood depended on it, to continue until they retired.

That's the title accounted for, then.

Burleigh Grimes, the stage play, opens the lid on an array of fast-talking New York money brokers, corralled by the garrulous Burleigh himself. Whisked along for the ride are their media watchdogs, wives and girlfriends, all jostling for position, throwing each other cockeyed leads and settling old scores. It's a tale of dealing and triple dealing, affairs of the heart versus affairs of the portfolio, breathlessly delivered and occasionally a little difficult to keep up with.

That said, the play is also a glittering piece of writing, and were it not for the plot rather caving in on itself in the second half, might be ideal material for a West End transfer. It's well served by an exceptional cast and a slick production.

Quite where the Oriental girl who silently bookends the show fits into the proceedings is difficult to tell; by the end I'd lost touch with the convoluted narrative and was just enjoying the dialogue and performances. This is a shame because had Kirby spent a little more time on the personal relationships and rather less on the jargon-fuelled, labyrinthine plot we might have had a very substantial piece of work on our hands.

Jack Tarlton's gauche newcomer George provides a convenient entry point as the ruthless manoeuvrings of the money markets are explained to him by Burleigh's jocular minions Buck and Hap, engagingly played by Richard Hollis and Giles Fagan. But in a play which appears to lament the loss of innocence in the relentless pursuit of wealth, George's fledgling relationship with idealistic TV reporter Grace is rather puzzlingly discarded in a second half overrun by malevolence and intrigue.

The musical interjections by live band Bully Holly Airlines are great, though they tend to hang around too long and lengthen the already rather cumbersome scene changes. A little nip-and-tuck required there.

Nicolai Hart Hansen's set would work perfectly had the lighting rig not obscured the actors from the rear of the raked auditorium during scenes on the balcony. And I didn't quite get the artworks suspended from the ceiling. The trappings of power, perhaps? Whatever.

In an exceptional cast John Guerresio stands out as the eponymous anti-hero: a performance of absolute conviction, well paced and always surprising. His scenes with accomplished newcomer Sally Presssman, as his acerbic wife, are as bitingly funny as anything you'll see in London at the moment, and are in themselves worth the cost of a ticket.

Kristin Milward's ice cool financial news personality Bigley is another delight. Her restaurant meeting with the vegetarian rookie reporter Grace – 'Eat squash, get squashed!' - is hilarious.

My advice: go and see it. Kirby's dialogue is matchless, even if his storytelling is somewhat unfathomable.

The Shape of Things
New Abasssadors, 19 May 2004

In his 1997 movie In The Company of Men, writer and director Neil LaBute plunged into the black hearts of a couple of business execs who mercilessly string along a blind female colleague. The piece was unnerving and at times distressing in its depiction of workplace immorality. Now, swapping the ruthless world of business for the arts faculty of a Midwestern university, LaBute finds similar ground to cover in The Shape of Things, revived on stage at The New Ambassador's after its recent cinematic incarnation.

In the local art gallery, Evelyn, a Fine Art postgrad, is tough as tungsten and intent on spray-painting a penis onto a sculpture whose appendage has been covered after complaints. She happens upon scruffy, benign Adam, English student, part-time museum attendant and full-time dolt. The pair embark on a relationship which sees Evelyn systematically transform her man from a gawky, bespectacled frump into a dashing beaux, via a fitness regime, contact lenses, a strict diet, trendy new clothes and a much debated nose job.

'What a piece of work is man', remarked Hamlet, and in the case of LaBute's Adam, it's unusually apposite. Without giving away the end, it's true to say that LaBute and his heroine not only fool Adam and his friends but also the audience when, during the course of a concluding lecture, Evelyn reveals the shady motives behind Adam's makeover.

Nobody can accuse LaBute of viewing relationships through Hollywood's rose-tinted spectacles, for if anything his vision is unreasonably gloomy. But the play is teeming with ideas and debate: about where the power resides in relationships, the role of artists, their moral responsibility to society and their subjects, and our contemporary fascination with superficiality and the people who fashion Ôthe surface of things'.

Adam is beguiled by Evelyn's sparky repartee, ruthless pursuit of the truth, and cute ass – an oblique reference to Marcel Duchamp's Mona Lisa With A Moustache . LaBute then invokes Rodin's equally explosive The Kiss, when Adam is subsequently drawn into a lengthy snog with his best pal's fiancée.

It's a godless world, implies LaBute, where Evelyn - under the guise of art and 'subjectivity' - attempts to play creator by rendering Adam almost unrecognizable to his friends. The result, though arguably an improvement, leaves an ugly taste in the mouth.

The play is a multi-layered concoction, and makes a fair fist at working on all of them, though the malevolence of its female protagonist and her infuriating, love-struck victim, render it only partially successful. Just when we cease to care what happens to them, however, the plot is rescued by Adam's flaky friends Philip and Jenny, pleasingly inconsistent in their obnoxious, dull decency, and inevitably dispatched by Evelyn when they threaten her ruthless hegemony.

Julian Webber's slick production zips along like a Powerpoint presentation, complete with captions. Flat planes of colour frame the short scenes, locations suggested by the odd item of furniture sliding into place, accompanied by raucous bursts of rock music.

The performances are consistent and convincing, and if Alicia Witt and Enzo Cilenti occasionally fail to flesh out their parts it's more the fault of LaBute, who – despite his breathtaking command of dialogue – sometimes glosses over character in pursuit of wider objectives.

And though Sienna Guillory and James Murray, as Jenny and Philip, disappear before the revelatory denoument, their relationship torn apart by Evelyn's cynical machinations, they have already served us well, providing a moral yardstick against which to measure Adam and Evelyn's posturings.

As a Pygmalian for the new century, The Shape of Things dazzlingly challenges the shock tactics of the conceptual art movement whilst robustly questioning the values of the society from which it grew. It's as subversive a piece of theatre as I've seen in the West End for a long time.

Bush Theatre, 30.4.03

Surprisingly, for a play which wears its heart so resolutely on its sleeve, David Eldridge's M.A.D. at The Bush, lacks any real emotional clout. It may be the playwright's rather trite correlation between the mutually assured destruction which threatens the world in 1984 and the domestic ructions which simultaneously tear apart a working class London family, or it may simply be a lack of pace in the first half, but this angst-ridden slice of Romford life never quite adds up to anything more than a particularly tortuous episode of EastEnders.

Eleven year-old John (Daniel Mays) is clearly as disturbed by the prospect of nuclear war as is Robin Cook, who pontificates on the subject intermittently on the television. His stolid dad Kelly (Lee Ross) is more concerned with flogging high heels in the local market until he discovers that his wife Alice (Jo McInnes) has gone off him and is shagging his flirtatious mate Luigi (Gerald Lepkowski).

The piece probably belongs on television, though these days - in the absence of anything resembling Play For Today - we are indebted to venues such as The Bush to promote such work.

The first twenty minutes are ponderous, with all parties slotting into well-worn character grooves: a couple of jack-the-lads bounce in with a dodgy video while a humourless, downtrodden mum tries to keep the lid on her terminal ennui. The only break from the norm is young John, with his toy soldiers arranged in strategic cold war combat on his Subutteo pitch.

John is studying for a scholarship to the local private school but mum and dad can't agree about anything, and as John hides in a cardboard box, the pair of them tear each other apart.

An interminable scene change later and we jump twenty years: Kelly lies in his coffin in the front room, having been hit by a number 86 bus (socialism RIP, geddit?). The rest is an extended eulogy, as a successful John (Lewis Chase), now thirty and a morally troubled banker, finally comes to forgive Luigi for putting a spanner in the works all those years before.

The cast - by and large - deliver, especially Lepkowski , whose quiet lothario Luigi is particularly memorable. But Hettie McDonald's direction affords too much respect to the characters' every utterance; lines which should be mundane and thrown away – especially in the first half - are stodgily inserted into pauses through which you might easily drive a Routemaster.

And there is precious little humour to lighten the load. In fact, the only inkling we get of genuine cockney wit is an extended excerpt from Only Fools and Horses on the telly, which mum, predictably dour, attempts to turn off.

There are, though, odd glimpses of light: Alice's clumsy attempts to re-engage Luigi with some fruity repartee are genuinely funny, and the young John's desperate ploy to keep his mum and dad together by having them all sit down for a breakfast of fried egg and custard creams has undeniable poignancy.

Mostly, though, the play leaves little to the imagination, preferring to slap the audience about with its painful message, and if it belongs in the land of soap it sits more happily amongst the broad melodrama of Albert Square than the infinitely subtler landscapes of Six Feet Under.

A Weapons Inspector Calls
Theatro Technis, Islington, 11.12.03

Winningly, Jerry Springer-The Opera proved that, with originality, panache, wit and irrepressible technique, one joke can last two hours. Justin Butcher, writer and director of A Weapons Inspector Calls at Theatro Technis in Islington, hasn't quite learnt that lesson.

If you're looking for a new take on the war in Iraq you won't find it here. Instead, there are the usual threadbare clichés, trotted out with predictable comic effect: an imbecilic George Bush getting his words hopelessly mixed up, a twittering Blair pledging his pusillanimous allegiance to a US regime controlled by a devious and sinister Donald Rumsfeld. Cherie Blair appears too, of course, as a gawky scouse nympho, mystically potent, alongside a mumsy Laura Bush and Bush Senior, Shakespearean in his disillusion.

The central conceit is neat: take JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls, transfer it to the White House and put the assembled reprobates on trial for their middle eastern misdemeanours. And it isn't entirely unsuccessful, the broad comedy working best delivered at pace when the paucity of character is easily overlooked.

Now, I may be in the minority – the Islington audience with whom I saw the show on Thursday night were clearly whooping it up – but I prefer my satirical jousting a little more cut-and-thrust, especially when it lasts this long. It's no good continually interrupting Blair when he's about to speak – we've had enough of Dan Stix, hard-bitten Weapons Inspector and unassailable Voice of Truth, by then - we want a bit of conflict and, in the absence of any character development, a few comedic moral dilemmas to grapple with.

True, Laura Bush throws a major wobbly at the end when she discovers precisely how many Iraqi children died as a result of sanctions in the '90s. But she sets out on her road to Damascus far too late. Only then does Stix enter into any meaningful debate with the shifty Rumsfeld on the subject of American foreign policy.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of George Bush's excursions in Iraq, Butcher runs the risk of underestimating his enemies and selling the audience short. His research is impeccable and compelling, but by channelling it through disillusioned weapons man Stix he allows the comedy to flag. In Mark Heenehan's hands, Stix delivers his accusations hesitantly and without conviction - possibly because his character, over-earnest and burdened with the stinking truth, seems somehow excluded from the fun. In fact, the chirpiest character on stage is Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bush's libidinous, psychotic Vice President, who, spared the tiresome monologues imposed upon Cherie and Bush Senior, illuminates proceedings with his amusingly puerile interjections.

There's something of the Gang Show about the sloppy dance routines, fluffed lines, dodgy singing and over-familiar sound effects which, had I been more disposed to the central premise, might have been endearing. But personally I find it hard to get too worked up about the removal of a genocidal tyrant from power when every subsequent measure of public opinion indicates that the Iraqi people have welcomed the intervention, however murky its motives. Especially when Bush's record against his own people of colour, his flouting of environmental agreements and punitive trade policies are infinitely more catastrophic and far-reaching. And if anyone's going to convince me otherwise then I need to be a little more engaged with their argument. There's a disappointing whiff of complacency about A Weapons Inspector Calls which leaves it falling short of truly biting and uncomfortable satire.

There are plenty of decent gags though, and in an uneven cast Barbara Hastings stands out as a convincing and fine-voiced Laura Bush, while Alisdair Craig and Andy Harrison struggle manfully with the disappointingly under-written Dubya and Blear. Matthew Dominic's Arnie just about saves the day with his appealingly crazy physical presence.

Lear's Daughters
Soho Theatre, 17.11.03

Even in 1987, when a committee of feminists from the Women's Theatre Group cobbled together the prequel Lear's Daughters, the piece must have looked lame and simplistic. Sixteen years later, and the decision of Yellow Earth Theatre to revive it seems potty in the extreme.

We discover Shakespeare's sisters in what appears to be a Hong Kong high rise, the lights of the city glowing beneath them. 'Look!' gasps one of the regal protagonists, 'I can see father hunting!' In an updated setting, we're further puzzled by an irritating Fool, less funny even than the Shakespearean model, dialogue of intense banality and the customary flickering video screen from which the black-hearted, philandering Lear silently oppresses his female offspring. Cue a victimised and murdered mother, a suggestion of incest, and a rambling, marginalised nanny and you get the picture. And just in case you were beginning to fear that the three girls may be dangerously close to defining themselves through the eyes of their evil, conniving dad, we have to sit through a series of ostentatious mimes in which are illustrated Cordelia's love of words, Goneril's affection for the paintbrush, and Regan's fondness for-er-wood. With video accompaniment. Dire.

Sigyn Stenqvist's transluscent, monochrome set might be quite stylish if it had an equally enthralling show to attach itself to, and the able performers do their best with a script of unremitting mediocrity.

Antonia Kemi Coker is lively enough as the safely androgynous Fool, though the jokes have all the impact of a damp firework. Josephine Welcome's Nanny has lines of such unutterable turgidity that one is left thankful that we have only to suffer her dreadful company for an hour and a quarter.

It is a pity that Yellow Earth Theatre cannot find more challenging work than this through which to investigate contemporary issues from an East Asian perspective, and a crying shame that talent and resources should go to waste in such a pointless exercise.

For all its attempts to explain Lear's relationship with his daughters through fresh eyes, the show has all the sophistication and insight of a recalcitrant teenager stamping her feet at perceived injustice. It approaches its subject from such a restricted angle that Lear is distorted into an archetypal monster, his daughters mere victims waiting to be liberated by the writers. Surely there are stories more worthy of telling, narratives from our culturally diverse society which speak with imagination and subtlety of the position of women in families and beyond?

Purporting to add to Shakespeare's play with this drivel indicates a presumptuousness on the part of the playwrights in 1987. To subject us again to its puerile argument in 2003 beggars belief. And just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, as Lear's newly-empowered daughters reach symbolically for his crown at the end, Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin weigh in with - you guessed it - Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves.

Come back Thelma and Louise – all is forgiven.

Taking Sides
Richmond Theatre 9.11.03

Playwright Ronald Harwood must have jumped for joy when he unearthed the story of German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler's spat with the American 'de-Nazification' officers just after the war, because the story is immediately compelling and transfers seamlessly to the stage.

Taking Sides is an absorbing, almost Shavian, battle of wills between imperious Furtwangler, defending his right to safeguard great art in troubled times, and philistine yank Steve Arnold, still haunted by his experiences of the death camps and intent on undermining the great man by showing him up as a willing puppet of the Third Reich, a fervent anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. Throw in a broken second violinist who, while supporting his hero, omits to reveal his enthusiastic party membership, a sensitive Jewish American music lover, a grieving wife determined to tell the world of Furtwangler's part in saving her husband's life, and a brittle secretary whose father attempted to assassinate the Fuhrer, and you have pretty much every angle covered.

The play throws up fascinating questions about the role of the artist in a totalitarian regime. Should Furtwangler have left Germany, as many others did in the 'thirties, or by staying was he any worse than Eisenstein or Shostakovich in Russia – neither of whom have received anywhere near as much disapprobation as Furtwangler and Nazi film-maker Leni Reifenstahl? By 'shaking hands with the devil' was the conductor merely adding a cultural gloss to a regime he clearly supported or was he, as he states, keeping the route open for souls to be transported to higher things, like 'liberty, humanity and justice'?.

Harwood's skill is to challenge the audience by allowing both Furtwangler and his interrogator unavoidably convincing logical and emotional arguments. Just when you think Arnold has his prey cornered Furtwangler retorts with an impassioned defence of his position; he was merely using the language of the locker room when dismissing a critic as a 'dirty jew' and could never have felt such a thing in his heart – after all, had he not himself helped save the lives of many Jewish musicians? Similarly, Arnold's refusal to accept Furtwangler as anything other than a mere 'band leader', and his aversion to Beethoven sets him apart as an ignoramus. But an ignoramus with right on his side, and infinitely preferable to a genius in league with Satan.

As Furtwangler, Julian Glover has the luxury of a lengthy build up, and his eventual appearance does not disappoint. He seethes with a barely concealed fury and manages to convince us that he may be both humanitarian and monster – not an easy trick to pull off.

Neil Pearson is hampered by a rather unruly Southern drawl which means that Arnold lacks a little bite. He's an insurance claims assessor back home and might occasionally be expected to set about his forensic task with a little more relish.

In the supporting cast, Ruth Grey is an effectively brittle Emmi Straube, clearly traumatised by events, and Tom Harper's David is a thankful reminder that not all Americans are philistines – an utterly convincing performance. John McEnery's opportunistic Helmuth is equally cogent as the second-rate fiddler who stepped into Jewish shoes in the Berlin Philharmonic, and Tanya Ronder's Tamara completes a strong and committed cast.

Deborah Bruce's nicely paced production is both absorbing and timely, with Americans again intent on 'democratising' the world. The play tours until the spring – catch it and decide whose side you're on.

7:84 Theatre Company, Soho Theatre, 3.11.03

Inflation's low, as are interest rates and employment figures, so these days political theatre companies like 7:84 would be hard pressed to garner much support for plays advocating a return to the barricades. Wisely, in Gilt, jointly written by Stephen Greenhorn, Rona Munro and Isabel Wright, the company opts for a challenging investigation of how people choose to distribute their wealth.

Impetuous Anita has a large cheque which she'd like to hand over to local NHS fundraiser James, on condition that she can specify exactly where it's spent. Coke-snorting Mick, a chat show host in an Armani suit which apparently gains him access to any woman he chooses, spends a night of unspecified sexual abandon an an hotel with flaky youngster Jo.

Meanwhile, in the same establishment, terminally disillusioned MS victim Carla offers her Eastern European waiter Al a no-obligation marriage deal.

It's the kind of story which, thirty years ago, would have found its way onto our television screens via Play For Today or Armchair Theatre; a tidy piece of social comment, well written and impeccably performed, and with just enough ambiguity at its conclusion to leave you wondering exactly what point it was trying to make.

A disjointed opening is soon smoothed out when we discover that Mick is the estranged father of James, and Anita owns the hotel in which he cavorts and Carla cajoles. Exchanges become increasingly dominated by their monetary value: Mick offers his son £3,000 for an hour's bonding as notions of human kindness are discarded in favour of financial complicity.

It's a neat and timely look at the way we seek to use money to gain control – over our own and other people's lives, and a reminder that, despite the millions sloshing around the economy there are still those scraping for a crust. Or in Al's case supplementing his income by transporting what appear to be bin bags of human body parts.

On Evelyn Barbour's inhospitably bleak set, scenes are slickly presented by a cast perfectly at ease with the material. Kathryn Howden and Paul Blair, as Anita and James, pull off the remarkable feat of convincing you they are in love within five minutes of the start, and as Mick and Jo, Andy Gray and Isabelle Joss manage a similar feat – hinting at a genuine rapport which undermines the financial wheeling and dealing.

Anne Kidd, as Carla, has all the desperate abandon of the terminally ill, while Alex Mikic serves up a perfect Al, pragmatic but holding onto his self respect.

Neil McKinven, as Jo's semi-itinerant flatmate Chris, delivers an impassioned critique of bourgeois society, a bitter, dispossessed misanthrope who trusts no-one.

Dramaturg and director Zinnie Harris's staging shows none of the uncertainty of her flimsy programme notes – the production is ably manoeuvred and very well cast, and shows that political theatre has come a long way from its didactic, tub-thumping origins, and can encompass the complexities and ambiguities of modern life with sophistication and poignancy.

See You Next Tuesday
Albery Theatre 5.10.03

When, in Jack Rosenthal's 1976 television play Ready When You Are Mr McGill, Jack Shephard's beleaguered TV director berates a lowly extra for continually fluffing his one line, the eponymous and humiliated Mr McGill turns on his persecutor and, in a memorable and vitriolic retort, puts Shephard firmly in his place. Though the central relationship is much the same, no such confrontation takes place in See You Next Tuesday, Ronald Harwood's adaptation of Francis Veber's French comedy Le Diner de Cons, currently running at the Albery Theatre.

Summoned to the smart Paris apartment of smart Paris publisher Pierre Brochant (Nigel Havers), the clottish Francois Pignon (Ardal O'Hanlon) is under the impression that he is being taken to dinner with Brochant's friends so that he can impress them with his models of architectural landmarks, constructed from matchsticks. Little does he realise that he is a mere pawn in a cynical game of one-upmanship devised by Brochant and his pals to see who can serve up the biggest 'twat' for dinner.

When, after a series of mishaps during which the hapless Pignon ruins Brochant's marriage, turns his mistress against him and invites a ruthless tax inspector into the lavish apartment, the penny drops and the buffoon finally realises why he has been invited in the first place. Rather than a climactic confrontation Veber opts for a more subtle conclusion: Pignon touchingly sets about undoing his mistakes by attempting to cajole Brochant's wife into returning. He may be a complete fool, is the implication, but he's a decent human being – which is more than can be said of Brochant's pampered coterie of charmless bastards.

Harwood's adaptation moves the action along jauntily, though his translation of the word 'con' is questionable and jarring. Havers's Brochant would be just as likely to offer his guests an 'intoxicating beverage' as he would continually refer to Pignon as a 'twat'. It may be a more accurate rendition of the French but someone should have suggested to Harwood that 'arse' would have been infinitely more likely an appellation, and retained Brochant's credentials as a solidly middle class, privately educated member of the Paris literati.

As Brochant, Havers is customarily suave, with Carole Royale doing her best as his somewhat under-written wife, one foot out of the door. Ardal O'Hanlon is happier blustering his way through a series of gaffes and disasters than he is playing the pathos of Pignon's position; his wife has also left him - for a colleague. Geoffrey Hutchings excels as Cheval, the gruff tax auditor rather implausibly lured from a televised football match to locate Brochant's wife, and Patsy Kensit is rather too much of a simpering rock chick to make much of Marlene, Brochant's earthy mistress.

Robin LeFevre's production promises much in the first half, though curiously runs out of steam after the ill-timed interval. And the climax - when Pignon's realisation and Brochant's guilty admission should elevate the piece into something marginally more interesting - goes for nothing. Liz Ascroft's set is stylish and white, the matching carpet perfect for an actor to accidentally spill coffee onto - which is exactly what happened when I saw the show. Wonder what the stage management referred to him as?

The Price
Apollo Theatre 12.9.03

About half way through The Price Arthur Miller encounters a problem: what to do with the decrepit old furniture dealer Gregory Solomon after he's ignited a long-standing feud between estranged brothers Vic and Walter. As they begin the bruising process of raking over old enmities, the playwright's solution simply to banish the old man to a bedroom for lengthy periods points to why the play leaves a residue of slight dissatisfaction. Despite its undoubted power and political subtlety one is left disappointed that a character who is given so much of the stage in the first half is then discharged to the periphery when things really start kicking off. After lighting the fireworks Solomon makes only fleeting subsequent appearances before shuffling on at the end to sweep up the debris.

His proximity, however, does create a subtle awareness of Solomon as an echo of the brothers' dead father – an equally demanding and slippery character by all accounts - and points up the latter's passive influence in a way which may not have been possible had Solomon simply – and more plausibly - disappeared for an hour for a cup of coffee.

Whatever, Miller's decision not only starves us of Warren Mitchell in the second half of Sean Holmes's superb production at The Apollo Theatre, it also deprives the play of much needed character development, as the brothers' narrative takes over.

Written in 1968, The Price was Miller's last successful Broadway show and is seen as an investigation of his own unease at having deserted his family to seek fame and fortune in the rarified world of the theatre.

In a sparkling opening act Mitchell's Solomon procrastinates teasingly before finally stating his case. Unexpectedly lured from retirement by Vic to put a price on his father's possessions, the beguiling old monkey declares that, irrespective of the quality of the goods, the value is pegged at whatever people will pay for them – a maxim further illustrated in Vic and Walter's subsequent reckoning.

Vic, deftly played by Larry Lamb, is a decent fellow, living a 'real' life. A cop nearing fifty and unable to decide whether or not to retire, he's crippled with a cautious, suspecting nature. Short of money and under pressure from his fleetingly ambitious wife (Sian Thomas, suitably giddy in turquoise), he accepts Solomon's paltry offer in much the same way as he'd previously knuckled under in providing for his deteriorating father. Whether his decisions are based on simple human kindness or an inability to look further than the easy option is the central question of the play, and provides Miller with fertile ground from which spring forth familiar questions of trust; in the memory, the family and the system.

Lamb pulls off a mesmerising performance as the diffident Vic, trapped in an unfulfilled life, and is complemented beautifully by Des McAleer's suave Walter – the successful doctor, fresh from a divorce and cleansed of any residual family guilt by an unswerving belief in his own destiny.

As the evening nears its end, questionable revelations tumble atop one another in an unremitting quest for the stinking truth. Was their father hording money while Vic scrabbled for leftovers on the streets? Did Walter finally relent and offer his brother the $500 he'd needed to finish his studies, only for dad to bury the message? Is Walter's offer of a job for his brother a genuine act of reconciliation or an easy route for a rich man to divert his guilt? And what is Warren Mitchell doing in the bedroom all this time?

As an investigation of the corrupting power of money, the turbidity of the past and the divisiveness of filial responsibilities, the play is robust and authentic, the issues vigorously unresolved. And in a punchy production Mitchell's Solomon is a delicious creation; mischievous, ambiguous and persuasive, shuffling around Anthony Lamble's marvellously well-judged collection of stately furniture and redundant artefacts like a mangy old dog sniffing at a pile of bones. Just wish we could have seen a bit more of him, that's all.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Not The National Theatre, Bloomsbury Theatre, 3.9.03

'All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.' wrote Oscar Wilde. 'No man does. That's his.' And it is only at the end of this deeply affecting play by Martin McDonagh that we get some inkling, through the placing of shattered 40 year-old Maureen in her dead mother's armchair, of the disappointments and tragedies which may have accounted for the latter's strange and difficult behaviour towards the end of her life.

We're in rural Connemara - JM Synge country - for The Beauty Queen of Leenane, McDonagh's adroitly-written first play. Middle-aged virgin Maureen's drab existence consists of an on-going conflict of wills with her grumpy and belittling old mother, where minor victories involve lumpy Complan and pouring pee down the sink. As a study in resentful interdependence the play excels, but it is also a battle between old and new Ireland; Australian soaps play on the television, Maureen's earthy and explicit sexual utterances when a man finally comes into her life grate with her mother's rustic puritanism.

Apart from being gut-wrenchingly tragic, the play is consistently funny. The dialogue trundles along with the usual quota of Oirish non-sequiteurs, but there's a bite and depth to the writing which engages throughout. 'You've the look of a virgin,' spits out old Mag at her daughter, 'you always have and you always will.' It's the terrifying power that parents hold over us, their peculiar knowledge of and ability to manipulate us, that holds the key to Mag's emotional stranglehold on Maureen, and is the reason we can identify so clearly with her predicament.

Never has the interception of a letter been more devastating as when Mag destroy's Pato's heartfelt missive to Maureen; even though it's a battered old theatrical chestnut the audience's disappointment is tangible.

Peter Symonds's meticulous production for Not The National Theatre will become more boisterous, I suspect, as the run gets into its stride. Though accomplished on its third night at The Bloomsbury Theatre, crucial scenes were approached tentatively; the pouring of cooking oil we were expected to believe had boiled in around fifteen seconds, and an obviously blinking corpse pointed to an under-rehearsed final quarter of an hour, the full horror of which seemed strangely muted.

The production was not helped by a set which would have looked more at home in amateur dramatics – a fridge seemed deliberately placed so as to partially obscure crucial business at the sink, a door was puzzlingly set in an irregular section of wall. Pointlessly distracting. Lucky, then, that the crummy design played so little part in proceedings, for the show belonged to the actors, each of whom wrung every last drop of comedy and pathos from the pleasingly unpredictable script.

As Mag, Nora Connolly was a perfect combination of pathetic old hag and conniving sleuth, slyly 'waiting for the news to come on' while plotting her daughter's continued domestic incarceration.

An assured Teresa Jennings played damaged Maureen with considerable guile; in turn sexy, vulnerable and malicious.

Emmet Owens gave a twitchy account of the restless and grudge-bearing Ray, who dreams of escape and violence, while Ged Simmons' Pato was a crucially plausible escape route for Maureen.

A traditionally-constructed piece, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is not for those who seek star names, spectacle or overt theatricality. But it's as intriguing, intelligent and well executed an evening in the theatre as anything I've seen in a while

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