King's Head Theatre, London N1
Opened 7 September, 2000

Joshua Goldstein's Martin Night was published in 1993, but is only now receiving its world premier (sic; the misspelling on the posters is corrected on the programme cover). This may suggest that Goldstein is, like Howard Barker, a member of that playwriting élite whose work is so rigorous that it scares people away from actually daring to stage it; it may, on the other hand, indicate that the play just isn't much cop. On the evidence of Dan Crawford's King's Head production, I incline towards the latter.

The piece is a period family drama set in 1966, just at the tail-end of the apple-pie era of the Norman Rockwell images which fill the programme and which are dissected through the narrative. Here, father Ben, a Treblinka survivor, represses the memory of his early life except for his attempts to instil a sense of the random cruelty of the world into his fifteen-year-old son, which amount to Ben's keeping the cruelty going himself. His overweight son – known universally as "the Roundman" – is assaulted both by his father's sergeant-majoring and his mother's, well, excessive mothering, and further done down by his spoilt-brat daddy's-pet elder sister. Matters come to a head on the evening when the Roundman is due to suffer a ritual of collective "hazing" by the jocks from his high school (the Martin Night of the title).

Goldstein is unwilling to let matters progress for more than a few minutes at a time before having one or another character turn to the audience to deliver an explanatory speech and/or go into flashback – accompanied, in either case, by cudgel-unsubtle lighting changes. Brian Protheroe is never less than a solid actor, but is here called upon to do little more as Ben than be ramrod-backed and talk about actuarial probabilities. Kika Markham is likewise dependable as the former patrician socialite Billy, who took pity on refugee Ben and now tries to find solace in little "good works", although bizarrely during the second half Billy seems to acquire some of the European-Jewish mannerisms and vocal inflections her husband has shed. Tom Wright as the Roundman (besides being not nearly as round as the script demands – as one who did weigh some 200lb. at that age, I know whereof I write) simply does not have the acting skills to command audience attention; even when nothing is happening but the Roundman alone on stage, talking expansively straight out to the house, Wright gives the impression that he would rather be part of the furniture. Paradoxically, portraying low self-esteem requires much more confidence than Wright yet possesses. Goldstein's play itself says nothing except that people tend to misunderstand each other, which isn't exactly late-breaking news.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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