Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 3 October, 2002

In Pat Cumper's The Key Game, one of the three patients in a run-down ward of a Jamaican mental hospital acquired his psychosis in Britain. Apparently the British experience is itself a recognised condition in Caribbean psychopathology. This adds a rich new layer to the role of race in diagnosing mental illness as so recently and incisively examined by Joe Penhall in Blue/Orange. But it is a layer opened up to us by Cumper's programme notes rather than her play.

The play itself introduces us to the trio of inmates Dappo, late of south London, a schizophrenic whose voices are directing him on some quasi-military mission; Shakespeare, an obsessive-compulsive former teacher fixated upon his desertion by his wife-to-be; Gonzales, an elderly fisherman sunk for decades in near-mute depression and their nurse, Norman, whose erratic but well-intentioned behaviour masks issues in his own personal history. It establishes a situation: common resistance to the demolition of the ward and the return of the patients to "the community". It weaves in a few non-revelatory themes: Norman's psychological baggage is fundamentally no different from that of his charges, and they're all in it together; for all the residents' supposed desire for freedom (symbolised by the game which gives the play its title), confinement is more safe and reassuring than the outside world.

And, in an hour and three-quarters, it does little else. The social dimension starving the needy inmates of resources for years, then turfing them out in order to redevelop the site as waterfront apartments is sketched in as a background to the personal interactions rather than an element to be examined in itself. It's also a major weakness that, as we learn the back-stories of the patients, all three come down to sex in one form or another. The efficiency of second-act revelations, with their implication that after years of fruitless incarceration all three have begun their respective recoveries on the same night, was cynically summed up by one audience member on the way out as "There are no easy answers... oh, wait a tick: yes, there are."

Karena Johnson's staging is deft and attentive on both "micro" and "macro" levels. The single weak link in performance is Sylvano Clarke's wild-eyed self-consciousness as Dappo. In contrast, Kevin Harvey is an eccentric delight as Shakespeare; if this production at the Riverside Studios achieves little else, it ought to secure for Harvey the professional representation which, according to his programme biography, he currently lacks.

This production is a slight departure for Talawa, Britain's foremost black theatre company. But in the end Cumper's play does not depart enough from observations and emotions which are easy, conventional, in their way even a little sentimental.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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