Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 23 April, 2004

Criticising M.A.D. feels like stamping on author David Eldridge's exposed heart. One desperately hopes that the play isn't as intensely personal as it looks, so that it won't be as cruel to point out that the piece really doesn't achieve very much as regards a wider audience.

It's 1984. John, aged ten (like Eldridge in 1984) lives in Romford (as did Eldridge) with parents who care about him but are too busy rubbing each other up the wrong way to give him proper time and attention. Having recently seen the nuclear-war-aftermath TV drama Threads, and living at the peak of Reagan's evil-empire rhetoric, the lad has become fixated on imminent global incineration: there's a beautiful symbol when the tabletop pitch on which he plays Subbuteo miniature football in the first act is remodelled into a map of Europe on which he moves toy soldiers and tanks to explain how The Big One will be waged.

When John's mother reveals that she has slept with her husband's assistant on his market stall, Luigi, the mother of all rows ensues, overheard by John. The subsequent three-way confrontation and brinkmanship illustrate Luigi's remark that "It's nuclear bombs that make the peace": each side is deterred from detonating by the threat of escalation and inevitable utter annihilation the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, from which Eldridge takes his acronymic title. In a coda set twenty years later, over his father's coffin, the adult John exchanges truths and insights with Luigi, and the aforementioned metaphor is hammered home rather too heavily. The piece makes no apologies for the artificiality of its symbols and the blatancy of its sentiments.

Thirteen-year-old Lewis Chase is exceptionally accomplished as young John, and designer Jonathan Fensom dresses the set impeccably in period, right down to the connecting cable for the Betamax video recorder. But as I say, it's as if Eldridge is trying to bear witness to his own past. Perhaps that's why the central debt of gratitude is so sketchily rendered: adult John speaks of his father's sacrifice in putting him through private school, but what we see is a decided ambivalence towards younger John's scholarship studies.

I come from a similarly sacrificing working-class family, and I keenly feel similar debts to the departed. I could therefore be expected to connect profoundly with Eldridge's play. But not a sausage, I'm afraid. These are matters we must bear alone, not bare in concert.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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