Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 4 March, 1997

April de Angelis's piece about a committed but complacent social worker, her clients and home life, puts into the blender the intellectual climates of three decades: the legacy of Seventies feminist ideological awakening, the group-discussion agendas of the Eighties (along with the idea of New Man seeking politely to rediscover his primal testosterone) and the questioning diffuseness of the current age. It is an enjoyable, though not wildly stimulating, play to watch (in Max Stafford-Clark's production for the Hampstead and Out Of Joint), but it becomes apparent afterwards that there is less to it than meets the eye.

The proposition that social worker Miranda (a conscientious, efficient performance by Margot Leicester) has failed to update either her world-view or her self-image is not helped by the fact that the characters around her all seem to come from different genres in different periods. Her partner Roger (Robin Soans) is an intensely irritating wet-sponge throwback a spineless, intellectually blocked lecturer who is sleeping with one of his students and enrols in a masculinity workshop; her friend Emma (Patti Love), a neurotic, garrulous failed artist, undergoes a Damascene conversion into a misandrist dominatrix; of her clients, Kate Ashfield's Nicola shows some awareness and sympathy but generally functions either as a comic supernumerary or a timid voice of moderation, while Julia Lane overplays the surly, messed-up side of Paula to the detriment of the mordant, street-smart components of her character she is given the lion's share of the funniest lines, but they are uniformly scowled out. The only sizeable departure from formula comes with Emma's new gentleman friend, who only ever appears in a full-head rubber mask but is a paragon of consideration, the kind of man who pronounces the word "absolutely" with an intrusive "Y" through his latex mouth-hole.

A feeling of out-of-time-ness pervades the play as one outmoded character interacts with another. (It may, indeed, have been written some time ago certainly long enough for the phrase "supplementary benefit" in the published script to require alteration to "Jobseeker's Allowance" in performance.) While most of the women possess a well-meaning core, the only man on or off the stage with any redeeming features remains paradoxically and significantly faceless. De Angelis is a fine writer, more than able to keep an audience engaged for two hours; once the curtain falls, however, the conclusion seeps in that not only has such a "whither society?" play supplied no answers, but The Positive Hour has not even framed coherent questions.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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