Royal National Theatre (Lyttelton), London SE1
Opened 15 October, 1999

There are plays which make you think about things, and then (if you will forgive the clumsiness) there are plays which make you think that you ought to be thinking about things, but let you off at that. Stephen Poliakoff's Remember This is one of the latter. It reassures us that it is enough to adopt a chin-stroking attitude without having to (in Heidegger's phrase) "get under way" with actual thinking.

Remember This rests on a semi-sci-fi narrative premise: that, after several years, video recordings fade, leaving a tapeful of snow and, at most, a muffled, echoey soundtrack. Rick Peck (engaging, burly Stanley Townsend), clearing out his shed-cum-studio before his second wedding and latest pioneering but modest business venture, happens on the discovery when checking tapes from his old wedding-video enterprise; his dizzy wife-to-be's sharp management-consultant sister (Geraldine Somerville) calls in a couple of Swiss video archivists, who discover that their own great moments in world history are likewise vanishing (we see an audience-heartening clip of Thatcher being erased). In a generational comment, Rick's son finds the phenomenon a liberating catalyst for him to change utterly the path of his life; Rick, in contrast, comes to eschew all his hopes of finally making it big with such a discovery, and settles down into at least partially contented anonymity.

It is a potentially fine yarn, performed with brio by Ron Daniels's company but, in Poliakoff's script, clunking quite a bit as it goes. Several early instances of blatant "whoops, exposition!" whizz past; it is impossible to understand why the Swiss archivists and a medical consultant are written so broadly comically; the video technology from a video wall to a pyramid of old-fashioned TVs in door-fronted cabinets seems deployed as a hi-tech gimmick as much as anything else (in which case, it would have helped if video designer Chris Laing had ensured that all the footage "distintegrated" the same way, rather than in at least three distinct "pathologies"). The degeneration of Somerville's character into a kind of desperate mysticism is more implausible even than the transmutation of son Jimmy (Tam Williams) from postgraduate finishing his thesis on George Gissing to narcissistic cutting-edge installation artist.

Most wanting, though, is a sense of engagement with the play's themes. It is clear enough that Poliakoff is once again concerned with the evanescence of memory, the perishability of the past and, through that, the fragility of present identity: what are we, and why, if we cannot rely on being a result of all we have been? On this occasion, however, he does little more than point us at the issue. In recent weeks I became the sole surviving member of my immediate family, and have been much exercised with matters of personal history, record and my own identity's having been severed from the past. Remember This could have been expected to speak to me immediately and profoundly. It did not.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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