CARAVAN
Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 14 November, 1997

If the Bush Theatre regularly attracts unsolicited playscripts of the quality of Helen Blakeman's Caravan, Mike Bradwell and his team have little to worry about. The first full-length play from this recent graduate of David Edgar's playwriting course is funny, poignant and intelligent in all the right places; ideals hurtle downhill into reality with an inevitability which is grim, comical or both at once.

Topics are introduced gradually, in registers which keep us guessing. In the opening scene, as Mick the scally cops off with fifteen-year-old Kim in her Liverpool family's North Wales caravan, his crudity is unsettling but moves in a dynamic equilibrium with the social awkwardness of both characters; only during the few brutal seconds of the sexual act itself is this counterbalancing suspended in its aftermath, comedy once again insists, almost shockingly, on bubbling to the surface. Kim's later confession to her elder sister Kelly goes unnoticed amid the radio commentary to the Grand National, but Kelly's comment on the result "Typical: 'im first, me second" could apply equally to what Kim has just said. Bruce, the boyfriend of their widowed mother Josie, remarks almost offhandedly, "If there's one thing I hate, it's being on a picket first thing Monday" a nicely gradual, un-bludgeoning way in which to introduce the outside-world theme of the Liverpool dock strike.

Blakeman works skilfully with dramatic irony, but without serving it to the audience on a plate; each successive twist of complication in the relationships of these five characters is first hinted at before being openly revealed, so that we squirm exquisitely for the victims as we await the full discovery of events. The caravan (wonderfully created onstage in Bruce Macadie's precise cutaway) becomes a compact crucible for politics, economics and betrayals on both a macro and a micro scale.

Director Gemma Bodinetz and her cast of five including Elizabeth Estensen, Pip Donaghy, Emma Cunniffe and the first stage appearance of Samantha Lavelle mix and match emotional registers with great sensitivity; even the inter-scene music is selected with sardonic deliberation. The play's final scene does not so much end as slip into blackout, but Blakeman has made a remarkable debut. To paraphrase Dr Fu Manchu: the world shall hear from her again.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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