Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 6 October, 2010

If Edward Hall were to satisfy all critical observers with his first production at the Hampstead helm following Anthony Clark’s troubled tenure there, a new Hamlet would not have sufficed. Nevertheless, Shelagh Stephenson’s new play does not signal glad confident morning. Nor is it a disaster. It just, like many plays, isn’t very compelling.
Lia and Nick (Julie Graham and Richard Clothier) are the mother and stepfather of 20-year-old Adam, who went missing six months ago whilst backpacking around the world. Lia seeks hope from increasingly dubious sources, the latest being Joyce, an unconvincing medium; her father, Cabinet minister Gordon (Paul Freeman), advocates using the media, specifically a TV programme made by ambitious young(ish) Joanna (Daisy Beaumont). So, family under stress, dealing and avoiding, how to move on or not, etc etc. The entire first half is really a set-up for the second, which takes place after the news breaks that Adam has been found.
And is that second act about reintegration, further re-assessment and so on? No. Oddly, it is the dramatic equivalent of one of the “yuppie nightmare” movies of the 1980s such as Something Wild or After Hours, in which comfortable lives are plunged into turmoil by the gratuitous arrival of a newcomer, who is usually evil and frequently inexplicably so. This party conducts a strategy of divide-and-conquer by lying to each of the goodies about others, and in the end the situation can only be resolved by accepting a certain degree of the moral pollution that has been introduced and fighting back forcefully, sometimes violently.
There is passing mention that Adam may have died in “the Jakarta bomb”, indicating upheavals in the outside world. But this is clearly not the kind of “outside” which penetrates Lia and Nick’s “inside”, so Stephenson’s intention of showing such an irruption is not served by it. (Nor is the sense of any plausible “inside” well served by Francis O’Connor’s simplistic, hyperreal/unreal playhouse of a set.) Allusions to chaos theory, and how vast differences can result from the tiniest variations in input, also fail to suggest any real hinterland to what is simply a story of people suffering unpleasantness to no great end.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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