Birmingham Rep
Opened 22 October/14 October, 1999 respectively

Birmingham Rep has been refurbished at high speed; in only four months or so, the auditorium seating has been replaced and the entire theatre given a new lick of paint. Perhaps this rapidity accounts for the impression that the blank, all-white expanse of the foyer has only been undercoated and that the real décor has yet to be completed. The auditorium, too, is something of a mixed achievement; whilst its seating is more comfortable and roomy, the removal of any mid-row aisles can be enormously inconvenient, leading as it does in places to unbroken ranks of almost 50 seats.

Design is likewise one of the most salient features of both of the Rep's current productions. In studio space The Door, Rachel Blues has created an unobtrusively versatile arrangement with a mediaeval-ecclesiastical motif for Moira Buffini's Silence, culminating in a coup in which most of the floor is pulled up to become the ramparts of a Cumbrian-Viking castle; in the main space, director Lucy Bailey's main idea for dealing with the numerous short scenes in her stage adaptation of Tennessee Williams's screenplay for Baby Doll is to demand of Bunny Christie an over-busy (and sometimes technically recalcitrant) set in which five separate spaces on three levels are selectively blacked out and collectively, cumbersomely trucked on and off the stage in front of a more permanent exterior scene.

Silence is, not to mince words, a beaut. Buffini (co-author and performer of early '90s fringe sensation Jordan) has managed to cram in narrative strands including the tenth-century Saxon/Viking conflict, the corresponding discord between Christianity and Norse polytheism, an ambisextrous love triangle involving both voluntary and inadvertent cross-dressing (to say more would be to give too much away), a tortured cross-country journey and the depredations of Ethelred the Redeless. Her underlying theme is the raft of personal, spiritual and metaphysical needs and yearnings which the approach of a millennium (in this case the first of the Christian era) brings out in almost all of us to a greater or lesser extent. It sounds like a recipe for earnest, over-egged disaster, but Buffini is deliciously skilled at crafting lines which sound vaguely, undefinably silly without undermining the whole business: Nick Fletcher, in particular, deadpans many such lines beautifully as the cleric "who has crept out his youth in sandals", and his mantra of "I am a priest; my name is Roger" (spoken with mild, Michael Palinesque fluster) deserves to become a Fast Show-style catchphrase. Rachel Sanders as the bolshie, snappish Ymma of Normandy, Zita Sattar as Lord Silence of Cumbria and Martin Freeman as Ethelred, transforming from gibbering idiot to coldly zealous butcher, give equally impressive performances under Anthony Clark's astute direction. Neither this play nor this production must be allowed to end here.

Baby Doll is altogether less compelling. Tom Mannion turns in one of his customarily fine readings as failed businessman and failed husband Archie Lee, and Jonathan Cake is coolly calculating as Vaccaro, the man whose cotton gin Archie has apparently torched and who sets out to become his nemesis in both commercial and conjugal matters. However, Charlotte Emmerson as Archie's teenage wife Baby Doll mistakes dumbness for youth and, try as she might, fails to generate the necessary nymphet-siren electricity. Bailey seems to have been more concerned with forging a stageable script from Williams's screenplay (including elements of his own subsequent stage version Tiger Tail) and Elia Kazan's film than with rendering that staging compelling in itself; she even inserts a couple of glaring anachronisms into Williams's precise chronology (Jerry Lee Lewis in 1952?). The set design means that each half of the evening suffers a lengthy mid-act hiatus as the interior sets are wheeled off in darkness, slowing the pace of the production from a Deep South saunter to a limp.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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