BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 30 April, 1997

Nicola McCartney has accrued a reputation over the last couple of years as a coming force in Scottish drama, and a pending National Theatre commission may further broaden her standing. Her breakthrough and that of her company, LookOut came in 1995 with Easy, now revived at BAC prior to a film adaptation for John McGrath's company Freeway.

To be honest, the heart sinks as the lights go up to reveal Rachel quivering in horror on a sofa whilst Paul, chatting coolly, straightens his clothing. All one's worst fears rise that this play about date-rape will be a tub-thumping, single-agenda affair. But two hours later the feeling of embarrassment is largely at having made such an assumption. Writer/director McCartney manages to cover every angle of her story and the questions it raises: pub singer Rachel dresses alluringly and appears "on for it", but plainly says no and plainly means it; in the trial sequences which frame the main series of flashbacks, the taped voices of prosecuting and defence counsel are equally inhospitable, but the defence lawyer who unmercifully grills Rachel is a woman. Most remarkably, the central scene in which Rachel, Paul and married couple Martin and Elaine have an increasingly drunken party together is peppered with Abigail's Party-style humour, lending added force to the mood shift once Paul and Rachel are left alone.

McCartney's redirection of the play (although it has not been rewritten) increases the visual impact of some scenes but simplifies the interpretation. Where Timothy Webster's Paul had previously come across as a more or less ordinary bloke no paragon, but led horrifically astray by blind obedience to his base urges and a refusal to recognise the signs of Rachel's stark resistance he is now more unambiguously menacing, particularly in the second half of the play, in which he is seen repulsively pawing Rachel as their court testimonies are intercut.

LookOut's co-artistic director Lucy McLellan copes wonderfully with the incredible demands made on her as Rachel, changing registers at the drop of a hat as she switches between the play's several time-lines, and mustering an impressive (if at times deliberately tacky) country-blues voice for her numbers in the pub scenes. Astrid Azurdia and Grant Gillespie as Elaine and Martin are in no way supporting players, but provide still more angles upon friendship and coupledom.

Despite the change in perspective, Easy remains a complex, sensitive piece which eschews all-men-are-bastards generalisation. McCartney cleverly first sets her audience to sniggering, then proceeds to make them wish uncomfortably that they could un-laugh their earlier responses.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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