Whitehall Theatre, London SW1
Opened 22 November, 1999

Lynn is packing her things preparatory to moving in with Anna, a hypnotherapist who has uncovered Lynn's memories of sexual abuse by her father David. When Lynn decides to confront David with her recollections, Anna firstly tries to discourage her and then lays down ground rules to David herself. David denies ever having laid a finger on Lynn, and accuses Anna of having "recovered" false memories. Tempers flare; Anna suddenly appears to share exactly the same memories of abuse; David is dismissed; the two women remain, but their balance of power is reversed. To call Mike Cullen's Anna Weiss the Oleanna of False Memory Syndrome is glib, but not entirely invalid; as Mamet did, Cullen manages to be at once partial in terms of facts and even-handed in terms of sympathies, allowing the audience to come to sometimes fiercely differing interpretations.

At least, that was the impression given on its impressive first outing at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in August 1997. On its West End première, the play's 80 uninterrupted minutes are revealed as rather more flawed. Director Michael Attenborough and screen actor Catherine McCormack in her stage debut have made what seems to me the fatally wrongheaded decision to portray Anna from the start as not just manipulative and controlling, but consciously so, as if she can scarcely even delude herself that her concern for Lynn is anything more than a proprietorial interest in her creature. We never begin to place credence or sympathy in Anna's role in Lynn's case; when (and if) audience uncertainty sets in, it is rather because we begin to doubt David's protestations of innocence. This also is apparently due less to a deliberate directorial/character decision than simply to Larry Lamb's performance. Although his characterisation includes some excellent touches (gesturing in bewilderment with closed, semi-fisted hands, literally unable to grasp what Anna is telling him), he never even begins to convey the impression, as John Stahl did so magnificently in Edinburgh, of the ruin of a man bereft of his job and his wife as a result of Lynn's accusations; he, too, seems motivated more by a proprietorial interest in Lynn than by any emotional concern.

Perhaps this is Attenborough's point. It certainly does seem to be the sad case that the interests of such victims are seldom truly addressed, but rather appropriated by a multitude of other parties from therapists to moral crusaders, acting in the victims' name but rarely to their genuine benefit. Shirley Henderson's Lynn is very much caught in the middle here, retreating once or twice into disquietingly convincing fugues of trembling and keening. Lynn finds her ultimate solace in being able not to reclaim her own life from David but to rebuild it in tandem with Anna. And yet Attenborough leaves his audience bemused rather than outright unsettled. Whose are the false memories: Lynn's of her abuse, Anna's of hers, or David's of his innocence? Why, even when we know what the play's situation is, do so many moments in the first act get unambiguous laughs? What, in short, have we just seen? I am not sure that director and cast have reached any firm conclusions on that point.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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