BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 5 March, 1998

New company Crush Productions has achieved the enviable boost of having its first production Maureen Chadwick's three-hander Dust, first aired in a reading at East Dulwich Tavern given a main-house slot at BAC. Unfortunately, despite a large and appreciative press-night audience, it feels more like a studio show come adrift in the larger space.

The story is straightforward: cleaning woman Eileen, recently unhinged by the loss of her mother, holds her pregnant employer Elinor hostage in the latter's bedroom in order to talk to her about... well, about dust and Elvis, mostly: the shock of finding out that the former is composed of dead human skin, and Eileen's messianic worship of the latter which extends to wearing the kind of virginal white cotton knickers the King favoured on women. (If you want a show which includes a peek up the skirt of an unhinged, middle-aged woman, this is the one for you.) Elinor's snooty mother appears once or twice, but is more concerned with an assignation with her post-marital bit of fluff than with paying real attention to her daughter.

Chadwick observes the dramatic unities, and locates her play in the same territory (at once well-made and cracked) as emerging writers like Robert Hamilton and John Donnelly. She patterns her motifs well, and hardly a spare ounce of dramatic flesh is evident: since Elinor is pregnant, we know more or less what will happen to her at the end of the play, and given Eileen's obsession we also know the Presleyan parallel she will draw. Saira Todd treads the fine line of enabling us to sympathise with Elinor's plight (she's caught in a trap, she can't walk out... sorry) without allowing us to like her much as a person, and Barbara Ewing is all insane serenity and middle-distant stares as Eileen, constantly sing-songing her employer's name as "Ellie-gnaw".

Neither action nor subtext, however, seems large enough to fill the space available. This is not the fault of the performances, nor of Maggie Norris's direction, but is most starkly symbolised in Bernadette Roberts's set, which cants diagonally across the stage using less than half the available playing area. We watch the goings-on on this tiny island of domesticity amid the black drapes, and feel that the action is as limited on a personal level as it is in physical terms. Perhaps, for all its surface anguish, the play simply has a wooden heart.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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