Trafalgar Studios, London SW1
Opened 1 March, 2005

Simon Mendes da Costa's play has popped seemingly out of nowhere to become the Hampstead Theatre's first West End transfer since its troubled move to new premises nearly two years ago. On the stage of the more amphitheatrical Trafalgar Studio One, its trapezoidal box set looks endearingly quaint until the action begins, when it becomes apparent that many essential events are obscured for dozens of spectators; the sightlines have not been sufficiently rethought for the new venue.

I feel better disposed towards Mendes da Costa's play than on first viewing, but am still not terribly enthusiastic about it. It struck me in January as hardly being a play at all, but more a one-off ITV comedy-drama put on the stage instead of the small screen. This was harsh; the piece shows an adroit grasp of theatricality, centred on the device of depicting alternating scenes in the same bedroom some 50-odd years apart so that, say, as Jason Durr's Louis Ellis exits from one door to remonstrate with his five-year-old son Anthony, David Horovitch's Tony the same son now in late middle age emerges from another to continue the preparations for Louis's funeral. It's a clever conceit, but it's been done a bare year ago in Richard Bean's Honeymoon Suite, with greater complexity and greater dramatic substance underpinning it.

Mendes da Costa makes a lot of observations about family tensions, sibling rivalry and the like, but none of them especially original. The emotional journeys, too, aren't always credible: at the climax, Tony and half-brother Reggie go from terminal sundering to sharing-a-laugh rapprochement within six minutes by my watch. Nevertheless, there are a clutch of fine performances in Robin Lefèvre's production. Alison Steadman is Alison Steadman to hilarious perfection if to no great point, Lynda Bellingham demonstrates her comic mastery of the wordless reaction (usually to one of Steadman's character's inanities), and in the 1950s time-stream, Emma Cunniffe suckers us into thinking of Louis's cuckolded wife Bobbie as merely amusing then affectingly shows us the insecurity behind Bobbie's determined perkiness. It's all very well done, and Mendes da Costa has already made himself a modest name with it. But, so far, "modest" is the operative word: it entertains superbly, but it would like to do more and doesn't.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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