Exclamation marks in show titles have had a bad press. They have become a kind of comedic shorthand for inappropriately glitzy musicals (the daftest of which is probably Richard Curtis's imagined Elephant Man musical, Trunk!, in the film The Tall Guy). Sometimes, though, they can be crucial. You want to see a play about identity on the current London fringe? Fine. There's one at the Bush: Snoo Wilson's journey through Freudian and Jungian analysis, called Sabina. There's another one at Pleasance London: Chris Dolan's romantic-role-playing comedy about Czechs in Glasgow, called Sabina! You see? Ignore that exclamation mark at your peril. This, for the avoidance of doubt, is a review of the latter show.
Dolan's three-hander, in fact, cannot make up its mind whether it simply is, or wants to be, "the ultimate feel good play" – as it is being marketed – or whether it is truly prepared to grapple with the deeper, darker questions it throws up along the way. It is the time of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia; Tereza, a Czech dissident living in Glasgow, watches as one of her language students, Sandra, seduces her landlord, Matthew, by pretending to be herself a heroine of the Czech resistance named Sabina. The jape becomes a dare and is taken to ever further extremes; inevitably revelations are made; inevitably tears flow; inevitably there is a happy ending (that exclamation mark signals as much).
The bulk of the dramatic weight in this Unbearable Lightness Of Bearsden falls on Lorraine McGowan, who seems almost more comfortable as Sabina than as Sandra; this is probably a function of Leslie Finlay's direction, which elicits performances a touch on the broad side – too big for the Pleasance space, at any rate – even in serious scenes. Vincent Friell's Matthew is the exception; he portrays his emotional switchback so plausibly as to all but derail our expectations of a happy outcome.
The second half of the 90-minute piece veers at high speed between more earnest images and themes: the theft of identity (Sandra has effectively stolen Tereza's selfhood), the question of whether people naturally prefer truth to fantasy, an interrogation scene complete with pistol on the edges of madness, and all the while the background radio reports of the Prague rallies. The dynamic of the play switches time and again during this phase, with no deeper grounding than Dolan's desire to switch it. The ending itself turns on the final brief line, a descendant of Joe E. Brown's "Nobody's perfect." But whereas Some Like It Hot had mapped out its happy ending by this stage, Friell's line constitutes the happy ending. A pleasant evening, indisputably, but one which really needs to decide whether to be more or less than it currently is.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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