Theatre 503, London SW11
Opened 13 May, 2010

Here is that rarity: a new play consisting largely of interwoven monologues, whose author and characters are not Irish. J.T. Rogers’ 2004 play (receiving its British première at the pub theatre which recently won the Olivier award for Best New Play for The Mountaintop) deals with a family of the New York haute-bourgeoisie: Central Park apartment, Swiss villa and in particular their “usual” hotel room in Rome, where the three narrators coincide in space but not in time. Lilian is a self-possessed woman of a certain age, June her daughter, Nathan an economist colleague of her husband’s.

As the first half unfolds (with occasional brief flashbacks in which performers play assorted cameos and, sometimes, their main characters in the past), we gain an insight into the three personalities, their attitudes to travel, personal and world history. Gradually, however, it becomes apparent that the story we are piecing together centres on the two absent figures: Lilian’s husband Arthur, whom it transpires Nathan has been cuckolding for years, and June’s twin brother Paul. Arthur died some time before even the earliest of the three time-streams; as for Paul, that is the mystery at the heart of the tale.

In the second half we begin to see the characters interacting with each other, at least in their own retrospective accounts, rather than glimpsing them on the margins of other stories. We begin to discern a family perhaps too hermetically sealed and possessive of each other, whose members consequently have difficulty finding or accepting roles for themselves as autonomous individuals. We also glimpse, as it were through the cracks in the main story, that this detachment from the world is a matter of social and professional as well as personal psychology. The boredom and slight contempt they feel for their various fellow travellers, and Paul’s impulse to become an aid worker, faintly suggest a culpable upper-middle-class complacency reminiscent of that which infuses the plays of Wallace Shawn.

Also as with Shawn’s plays, I am afraid, the piece also feels rather as if actually becoming explicit at any point were somehow infra dig. Sorcha Cusack, Miranda Foster and Barry Stanton are the kind of big-hitting cast that Theatre 503 can now attract, but like the titular island’s relationship to Africa, the play stands a little way off the coast of being engaging.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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