Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 28 October, 2004

Iím becoming a fervent fan of Kathy Burke as a director. This spring she showed that she could modulate a large all-male cast from rumbustiousness into politically charged fatalism in a touring revival of Brendan Behanís The Quare Fellow; now, she is equally adroit at a confined, nuanced and sometimes all too formalised family drama. She seems simply to marshal her cast to serve the play, with a no-nonsense, no-frills instinct similar to her approach to the acting career which is now in eclipse as she moves wholly into direction.

Nick Staffordís play is contemplative and sensitive, but on occasion too structurally cute for its own good. Father, mother, grown-up son and daughter are gathered after a wake for the youngest of their family, who died young but (of course) illuminated all their lives. As wine and whisky are consumed, each lays bare their own need for the kind of love that will reaffirm their own identity, and (of course) receives some but not enough.

Itís a talk-talk-talk play, then, although for the most part the talk is both naturally phrased and discreetly compelling to anyone who has ever been bereaved or simply felt adrift. However, it simply feels too easy to make daughter Sian a healer of an unspecified kind, combining New Agery with pop-psychobabble so that the substance of awkward family reconciliation has a handy, hollow opposite. And the entirety of the second act is far too formally shaped: following the family quartet, we get a sequence of duets Ė the menfolk with their men talk, then the women, then the parents being candid with each other for the first time in years Ė before an impromptu but still ritualistic sequence of eulogies to the departed.

Itís a pity, because thereís much to admire in writing and performance alike. Hugh Rossís Caledonian sardonicism is here nicely turned into a minor key; as his wife, Linda Bassett is heartbreakingly superb as she gropes to regain the self she has too long deferred. And as for the precision of Burkeís direction: thereís a moment when Sian makes to embrace her father; almost before she can move, he, always uncomfortable with overt emotion, has warned her off with a single blink-and-you-missed-it wag of the finger. Such detail is typical of what is in many ways an archetypal Hampstead play: middle-class soul-searching on an intimate scale, a chamber piece that never breaks out.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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