Young Vic Studio, London SE1
Opened 16 January, 1997

The critical fraternity was out in force at the Young Vic for the press performance of The Shift, written by one of its number (Clare Bayley), lit by the son of a second (Alex Wardle) and directed by academic and critic Andy Lavender. You could be excused for attributing praise of the show to the freemasonry of reviewers, but you would be wrong to do so.

Bayley's previous dramatic work, for both stage and screen, has shown her to be an intelligent and feeling writer, and this examination of three female generations of the fictional Radcliffe family confirms her growing skill. Oscillating between 1947, 1968 and 1997, the play deals sensitively and for the most part subtly with each woman's attempts, within the context of her own cultural moment, to build a habitable identity for herself. Whilst they grope towards structures of self-belief, journalist mother Celia is shown interviewing adherents to a number of external creeds ranging from Catholicism to cryogenics.

Bayley is sometimes blatant, almost clumsy, in introducing background history: in Act One, the young Tilly Radcliffe (Anna Niland) and her friend Veronica (the gently comical Hannah Miles) run through a checklist of 1947 references including the upcoming royal wedding and the promise embodied in Mr Attlee's government (the latter note ironically echoed in a subsequent 1997 Blairist paean); a few minutes, but over two decades, later it is apparent that young Celia has decided to move to Paris largely so that the author can entangle her on the margins of les evènements before she succumbs to a gynaecological "event" of her own.

Against this, however, a number of motifs are cunningly and delicately interwoven throughout the piece, principally the role of Ophelia, the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of womanhood and the "language of flowers". It is an appetisingly dense play, further enriched by director Lavender's use of real-time and stop-motion video projections. In its scope, human concern and modest multimedia aspect, The Shift at times suggests a miniature, home-grown version of Robert Lepage's The Seven Streams Of The River Ota.

Laura Macaulay (no relation, for once, to my colleague Alastair) makes of Izzy a plausible 14-year-old fumbling towards individuality amid the Nineties' blank generation, and Helena Lymbery (who seems effortlessly to reinvent herself for each production in which she appears) strikes the right notes as both the gauche (and, indeed, rive gauche) younger Celia and her defensively reserved middle-aged incarnation. As a writer, Bayley may not yet have her intellectual, emotional and dramaturgical currents in perfect sync, but she shows every sign of meeting the necessary convergence criteria in the near future.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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