GRACE
Old Red Lion, London EC1
Opened 30 October, 1996

Kylie Minogue was recently described as having undergone an image transformation "from rabbit-in-crinoline to deconstructed funk elf". Victoria Worsley, astonishingly, manages both within a two-hour show, and several more besides.

At various points in Grace she is a bride who has miraculously regained her virginity, a magician's assistant complete with spangly leotard, and a suburban Cleopatra for whom upheavals among the rulers of the known world are significant only because they play havoc with the seating arrangements for her wedding to Mark Antony. Somewhere along the line she also manages to impersonate a roller-skating tampon-commercial girl.

To describe these changes of guise as phases in one woman's quest, on the eve of her 30th birthday, to mould an identity for herself is like author Sarah Woods's programme notes true but unhelpful. These are not so much complete personae as items on Grace's lengthy Things To Do Today list, which (when recited at the opening) ranges from "have a cup of tea" via "back-up computer disks" to "have children". As she frets indecisively, trying on characters much as she does clothes from her "smart" wardrobe, imaginary men emerge literally from the woodwork of Steve Dennis and Nigel Prabhavalkar's ingenious set.

Richard Clothier and Lloyd Notice do sterling service as Mr Darcy, a. jargon-gibbering handyman, a hip-thrusting soul crooner and a host of others, also appearing periodically in hairy satyr-pants to reinforce their mythical natures. Worsley herself is a complex delight. Her performance inhabits the same arena as the solo work of Emily Woof, but where Woof primarily draws admiration for her mental and. physical discipline, Worsley's portrayal of variegated and emotions has a warmer, more organic core. In this she is aided by Woods's script, which embraces occasional clichés, both celebrating and suffering their truth: Clothier's magician walks off halfway through the sawing-Grace-in-half routine, leaving Worsley to lament, "You bastard! You've left me in pieces!"

Grace is a hugely knowing piece in terms of the status, roles, ambitions and dreams of a contemporary Everywoman, but it is also feeling. Director Theresa Heskins never allows the sadness of an episode to overpower the humour for which it is mined, but maintains a strong and consistent undertow of "you've got to laugh or you'd cry". The play grows diffuse as the phantom men begin to interact independently of Grace, but by this stage the dramatic seduction is complete.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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