INCONCEIVABLE
Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse/Plymouth Theatre Royal
Opened 31 May, 2001

Ben Elton's sureness of comic touch seemed to desert him with last year's widely panned film Maybe Baby. Now a stage adaptation by Laurence Boswell of Elton's novel of the same story, Inconceivable, fares little better. Elton seems throughout this comedy of infertility to be wanting to have his cake and eat it.

Oh, laughs there are aplenty, but the biggest yoks always seem to come for what the central thirtysomething couple, BBC comedy executive Sam and theatrical agent's assistant Lucy, decry as "knob gags". The entire final sequence will they or won't they conceive? Will they or won't they split up? conjures up an image of Elton scrupulously measuring his material out on a set of balance scales: a dram of sombre poignancy on this side, a grain of sentimental affirmation on that. But that is only the most overt example of an air of deliberate apportionment which persists through the play, as Lucy's heartfelt reflections are deployed to counteract the ageing-laddish jollity on Sam's side. A second plot strand concerns Sam clandestinely writing a barely disguised screenplay of the couple's own quest to conceive; this not only allows Elton to indulge in the stale self-referentiality of writing about writing, but in the scenes of discussion about the script he gets to tell us exactly what he, the author, is doing with his story, just in case we missed the point.

Geraldine Alexander is at her best with the material centred upon Lucy, and rather more awkward when corralled into jocular banter mode with Sam. Duncan Bell, whom I last saw as Swann in the National Theatre's Remembrance Of Things Past, is monumentally miscast in the role of Sam. Bell exudes gravitas from every pore and every resonant vocal cord; seeing this fine actor speak of "nip[ping] into the lav and giv[ing] the old fella a seeing-to" is akin to finding Edward Fox on Never Mind The Buzzcocks or watching Robert Hardy perform Puppetry Of The Penis. Boswell's production finds its energy by going where possible for the wacky and cartoonish (with Gary Sefton and Darren Tunstall excelling among the supporting cast as a series of double acts), and leaves Bell floundering.

The analysis of Sam's sperm describes it as "30% sluggish, 41% swimming in the wrong direction, 90% useless". It would be cruel to describe Elton's story in the same terms. But sometimes you have to be cruel.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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