BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 29 October, 1996

In addition to its useful "I Wish I'd Seen That" strand, BAC is now giving a repeat airing to four shows (presented in alternating double-bills) originally seen in Camden as part of the Etcetera Theatre's autumn festival of one-person plays.

Performances on even dates begin with Elizabeth Hand's The Have-Nots, in which performer Anne Wittman intersperses home cosmetic make-overs with an account of two decades of bizarre small-town Virginian history, involving a still-alive Elvis and (consequently) a lurid Cadillac. Although Wittman and director Kate Gielgud occasionally insert wonderful grace notes (the narrator, describing Carrie Fisher as "the one married to whatsisname", makes a short-guy gesture to symbolise Paul Simon), the performance for the most part is both sluggish and exaggerated: would even 1970s white-trash go to such lengths to act out a story for friends?

The other half of this bill, An Occasional Orchid, features a remarkable performance by co-author Chowee Leow as a Malaysian transvestite in London. Leow's story is powerful and affecting, but includes many of the devices which a minority, myself included, found annoying in his writing partner and director Ivan Heng's previous show Journey West. In particular, Heng's fondness for enforced "interaction" with the audience in full lighting combines uneasily with the bitter defiance underlying Leow's performance to border at times on hostility and humiliation of punters. Those with more generous discomfort thresholds, however, may find it an unalloyed tour de force.

The pair of shows presented on odd dates begins with the pick of the bunch. The contrast between Robert Young the diffident former press officer at BAC and Robert Young the writer of the bleak, at once clinical and poetic monologue Obsession is stark and, frankly, disturbing. In his first serious play Young has created a protagonist who embraces with a cold relish his role as the abased partner in a claustrophobic relationship, and on its break-up spends years hunting down his former partner. Director Lisa Goldman and actor Paul Kemp take exactly the right approach in allowing the element of grim humour its place as an escape valve but refusing to let it dispel the predominant shadows; Kemp gives an expertly nuanced performance, scrupulous in every move and inflection.

Obsession is paired with Barry Sorts It Out which, although it also features a protagonist whose partner leaves him, is probably the runt of the litter a sordid East End comedy written by stand-up Pat Condell. It repeats ad nauseam the same gag, in which Barry's narrative recounts his calm, reasonable thoughts followed with a "so I..." by his crassly Neanderthal actions. Andy Linden looks as if at any moment he is going to ask the audience menacingly who they are looking at, but this is a play with all the bite of a set of joke-shop fangs.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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