Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 2 June, 2000

As I have said before, sometimes faint praise is not intended to damn, but just to praise faintly. Some times a play does nothing wrong, but nothing very distinctively right either; it is simply there. So it is with Jorge Accame's Venecia, presented at the Gate as part of its ongoing association with the Royal National Theatre Studio.

The storyline of the uninterrupted 90-minute piece is simple: La Gringa, the ancient, blind madam of a brothel in the north-western Argentine town of San Salvador de Jujuy, yearns to visit once more the (real or imagined) glories of her youth in Venecia. Once the three whores who work in her house have actually found where Venice is, and realised that the fare there amounts to "on our rates, about 700 clients", they decide to fake it for her. With the help of a "regular", they put together facsimiles of the plane ride, "streets of water" and gondola journeys. There are various interplays of the three women (the predatory newcomer, the jealous old hand and the pragmatic mediator) and their faithful if dumb client Chato, but these serve only to flesh out the main narrative.

It is, for the most part, gently humorous, after the manner of one of the pre-conveyor-belt episodes of Last Of The Summer Wine, until the closing minutes bring their half-expected wash of warm sentiment. To be more precise, this has the atmosphere of an Argentinian short story after the manner of one of the less fantastic works of Borges or Bioy Casares; indeed, Accame's output as a writer inclines more towards short stories than plays.

Rebecca Gatward and Alison Gordon's translation teeters on either side of the line on the one hand indulging in unsubtle double-entendres of the "Take a look at my new [electronic] organ.., isn't it magnificent?" kind, on the other leaving many of the ejaculations and linguistic particles untranslated from Spanish. Gatward's direction is unfussy, and it goes without saying that Bob Bailey's design pulls a coup or two even in the Gate's tiny space. But the evening never really graduates from agreeableness into anything more compelling.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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