Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 20 March, 1998

In James Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus recalls himself "On the top of the Howth tram alone crying to the rain: naked women!" In Alex Johnston's Deep Space, Stephen's lineal descendant Keith (played by the author) has the luxury neither of trams nor of plurals; he is fixated solely upon his longtime object of silent veneration Fionnuala. The trouble is, his electrician flatmate Jaco (Patrick Leech) a combination of Lynch, Cranly and Buck Mulligan to Keith's Stephen finds himself making headway with her, both of them ignorant of Keith's devotion.

The Bush prides itself on its recent Irish discoveries and imports, including Billy Roche and Conor McPherson. Johnston may yet sit easily in such company, but the hour and a quarter of Deep Space feels like a first-rate student or post-student show a tiny gem on the Edinburgh Fringe (or, indeed, the Dublin Fringe, which the Bedrock company organised), but a little adrift in what listings magazines now insist we refer to as an "off-West End" context.

Jimmy Fay's direction is minimal: casual exchanges in the squalid flat (where the pair strain to listen to the television because there is no remote and neither can be bothered walking the two yards to the volume control) alternate with spotlit monologues, mostly by Keith, outside the "room". Johnston plays the young intellectual in a sleepwalk of dissociation, his feelings sublimated almost to the point of catatonia until the brutal offstage climax. Leech's Jaco begins as a straightforward wastrel who eventually sees, or believes he sees, the possibility of mature stability with Fionnuala.

But the intersecting emotional trajectories of the pair are not given equal weight. The possibility that we should have been identifying all along with Jaco rather than Keith is on the illusory side; Keith may, in one speech, explicitly decry the intellectual self-regard of the characters Woody Allen plays in his own films, but as Johnston has written Keith, he partakes of such an attitude rather more than either the character or the author would care to admit. For all that Jaco may be given the last word, it is Keith with whom Johnston the writer really engages, and this engagement cannot but carry over to the audience, for all his enormities. The play is not designed to withstand the kind of scrutiny that its own protagonist would give it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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