Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2004
** / ***

Perhaps I shouldn't have gone to a comedy show called Bad Play 2: Worser Play immediately before The Pull Of Negative Gravity. It's not that the deliberate shambles of The Trap's show is directly comparable to Jonathan Lichtenstein's play (a co-production between the Traverse and the Mercury Theatre of Colchester), but I found myself on a state of high alert for reckless deployment of Big Issues.

In Lichtenstein's family drama, Dai leaves his struggling Welsh hill farm to go to war, and returns half-paralysed, his speech reduced to semi-intelligible grunts. Bethan, who had chosen Dai over his brother Rhys, marries him but finds herself unable to stand him. The farm continues to decline. In 90 minutes, we get the Iraq war, foot and mouth disease, euthanasia and agricultural economics as well as the immediate family dimension. Oh, and Bethan is, for no apparent reason, a child-woman of cloyingly winsome temperament who is sexually excited by the military helicopters which fly overhead from a nearby base.

Gregory Thompson's production is sensitive, and boasts a quartet of committed performances. But Lichtenstein's writing is on the one hand bogged down by a bumper pack of social agendas, and on the other hamstrung by the strategy he adopts to try to make it all digestible, which is to use a tone of naïve honesty (shading into outright feyness with Bethan) of a kind that the likes of Richard Cameron can pull off but he cannot.

In contrast, witness how far the modernisation of Irish society has progressed. Not so long ago, my compatriots wouldn't have known what the crisis in masculinity was; now, they have a play about it at the Traverse. Gerald Murphy's Take Me Away shows a father and his three sons gathering to visit their mother. As onion-layers of lies peel away, it transpires that she is not ill in hospital, but has simply grown fed up with a dull marriage to a selfish, brutal lump and moved out; he, in turn, is trying desperately to play the "let's be a family again" card. However, it turns out that two of his sons are likewise too slow to keep up with their respective self-confident women, and the eldest confines his sexual life to a computer screen and a roll of toilet paper. Lynne Parker's production for her Rough Magic company is as direct as Murphy's writing, and it's interesting to see the other side of the women-discovering-themselves coin for a change, but in the end not quite interesting enough.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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