THE SYRINGA TREE
Royal National Theatre (Cottesloe), London SE1
Opened 14 February, 2002

** Noble feelings in themselves do not make a great play

Pamela Gien's semi-autobiographical piece about a South African childhood, performed solo, is far too obviously manipulative.

I spent the 100 uninterrupted minutes of this show wondering whether I was the only one being left entirely cold. I think not: at the end, it took several seconds for the applause to start, but the space was occupied not by awed silence but a rather relieved murmur.

Gien tells of a white liberal family on the outskirts of Johannesburg in the 1960s and '70s: kind to their black servants, healing the poor (father is a doctor), and so on. The main character is six-year-old Elizabeth, whom Gien portrays in the second most excruciatingly exaggerated little-girl performance you will ever see second only to the even worse one she lapses into when portraying Elizabeth's nanny's infant daughter.

The show is constructed along several annoying sets of lines at once. It has that sentimental kind of bravura of many American solo shows (Gien now lives and works in the U.S.), where we're invited to admire how one person can play so many roles... but they're all crude shorthand. It asks us to approve the show because of the nobility of the characters in it. Its final, sentimental reunion sequence even verges on theatre-as-therapy for Gien. We can do without it all.

Written for divento.com

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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