Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
Opened 26 October, 2000

Last year, in common with most other reviewers, I enthused about Richard Bean's Toast when it appeared at the Royal Court Upstairs-in-exile. His new play Mr England, presented at Sheffield's Crucible in a National Theatre Studio co-production (in repertoire with Simon Bent's Accomplices), builds on the strengths of Toast only to swathe them in a fog of portentous fabulism: just look at that title, for a start.

Jackie Brooks's set consists almost entirely of a quartet of chairs in differing styles, all facing front. Gradually it becomes apparent that plasterboard salesman Stephen England's chair is in fact in a psychiatrist's consulting room, as he tries to shed light on what might have led him seemingly spontaneously to get up in the middle of the night and pee and crap on his sitting-room carpet. His life involves a stoically frustrated wife, a compulsively jabbering mother and a misfit teenager whose life he apparently saved in a pleasure-boat tragedy several years earlier.

Jane Gurnett as wife Judith and Avril Elgar as mother Irene have almost all the best lines, whose sharp crafting is informed by Bean's previous experience as a stand-up comedian: discussing Stephen's passion (which includes a never-explained sexual element) for visiting war cemeteries and battlefields, Judith remarks that Passchendaele is "nice, but there's nothing for the kids", and Irene's free-associations are an Izzardesque feast.

But it becomes apparent just before the interval that this is to become more than just a dysfunctional-family comedy-drama: young Andy (Laurence Mitchell) is waging a covert vendetta against Stephen (Neil McCaul), leading to a final half-hour of revelations and reversals which sometimes suggest Pinter but more often just feel like overreaching ambition. Bean may be claiming that guiltily fraudulent mediocrity is at the heart of the English national character, both marginalising and allowing others to exploit those whose greater ability or greater need for care is thwarted; however, whether his message is that specific or more broadly impressionistic, it is so to speak signposted with big neon arrows which leave us in no doubt we are supposed to be heading into Profound Territory. Neither in the script nor in Paul Miller's production is the shift pulled off with any degree of finesse. Bean on comic form is a major joy, but when he adds unrefined significance to the mix, his soufflé collapses with an audible phut.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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