SERVING IT UP
Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 16 February, 1996

The pessimism of a few years ago over the state of new writing in British theatre has now been replaced by a mild euphoria, with the likes of Jonathan Harvey and Jez Butterworth becoming rightly fêted as talented twentysomething playwrights. But it may be time to show a little wariness; all writers need a period of nurturing before they fully discover their own form, and some more than others.

Twenty-two-year-old David Eldridge's first play Serving It Up follows young Sonny through his no-hope life in Hackney. He lives off the dole and small-time drugs deals (using blue food colouring on Anadins and selling them as E's), gets embarrassed by his father down the pub, fails to get off with the lippy Wendy and does not realise that his best friend Nick is knocking off his mother.

Eldridge is intent on creating a slice of it's-grim-down-south naturalism, in which the fast but not especially witty banter only partly masks a group of beating, battered hearts. Thus far, however, his writing is undistinguished and formulaic: the youngsters' exchanges are third-rate (right down to Sonny's malapropism about becoming "HGV positive"), and the insights his characters offer into their depths are at leaden odds with the personalities he has hitherto sketched in the line "You're my greatest pleasure and my greatest curse" is the first and mildest outbreak in a painfully stilted scene between mother Val and Nick.

Christopher Ettridge as father Charlie gets closest to conveying a rounded character, weaving his drunken inanities and moroseness into some kind of unified whole; Arbel Jones gives too much rein to Val's sense of emptiness, leaving herself with little effective range, and the teenagers even Eddie Marsan as Sonny can do little but oscillate between semi-wise-cracks and gouts of adolescent angst. Jonathan Lloyd's direction cannot overcome the flaws of a televisual scenic structure which forces actors to break off and exit in half-light for little reason other than that the scene has ended.

Serving It Up is really little more than a statement of artistic intent: it sets out Eldridge's stall, but gives no real indication of what the goods will look like when he finishes his apprenticeship. If, instead of staging this play, the Bush had given him a commission and a good script editor to work with intimately, they would have done better by both Eldridge and their audience.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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