Finborough Theatre, London SW10
Opened 3 April, 2003

The commitment and consideration shown by the management of the Finborough pub in Earl's Court to the fringe theatre housed on its first floor may be inferred from the refurbishment just completed. The stairway to the theatre used to be accessible directly from the street; now, prospective punters have to walk the length of the bar, dodge an awkwardly protruding counter and weave through three doors within as many yards. But at least the newly upholstered theatre seating is more comfortable than anything in the now 1990s-designer-clinical pub below.

The reopening production, Harry Kondoleon's Christmas On Mars, is also a little out of time. Its British première comes 20 years after it first opened in New York, and it is very much a product of its period, location and milieu. It's one of those smart, bitchy, sexually catholic, rather artificial "relationship" plays. If someone had taken shavings off the Woody Allen of the period, the shavings had come out as gay, entered psychoanalysis and been asked to engage in creative writing exercises about their friendships, relationships and sexualities, this is the genre that would have resulted. (And that's the kind of sentence that wouldn't be out of place in it.) It's a genre which at its best has given us the likes of the March Of The Falsettos musical trilogy and, at a slight remove, the coruscating polemic of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, but not every instance can be solid gold (Kondoleon's Obie award notwithstanding).

Here, then, are Bruno and his pregnant girlfriend Audrey, about to move into a new apartment, plus her estranged mother Ingrid and his obsessive gay flatmate Nissim. They interact with one another in various ways, often abrasive; they carp amusingly and yearn poignantly; nothing ends perfectly, but they all somehow manage to keep rubbing along. That's it.

In Joss Bennathan's production, the four actors are all in slightly different plays. Justin Brett as Bruno hits the right balance of naturalness and contrivance to carry off his lines and situations efficiently, but Joan Walker as Ingrid shows him how it's really done by taking the same register and shifting it up to third gear; her sudden outpouring on hearing of her daughter's pregnancy is a delight both as comedy and as finely judged performance. Andy Spiegel as Nissim deploys high-camp bitch-queen voice slightly in excess of his medium-camp body language to more cartoonish effect, and Janie Dowding as Audrey takes the director's instruction to be dispassionate altogether too much to heart; "Don't you ever change your expression?" Nissim asks her, and actually, no, she doesn't.

The Finborough is to be applauded for the ambition and success of its policy of staging premières and reviving neglected 20th-century works, but you can't win 'em all. Christmas On Mars isn't a clinker by any means, just not as exciting as it might be.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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