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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Arts Theatre       2007

David Auburn's prize-winning play, first seen here at the Donmar a few seasons back, returns in a production from the Birmingham Stage Company, and the effect is, well, nice.

Director John Harrison seems to have taken niceness as his keynote for the whole production. The characters are all nice. The emotions never transcend the limits of politeness and safeness. Nobody's feelings are ever seriously threatened, least of all the audience's.

This doesn't destroy the play, but it mutes it to the point of hardly seeming worth the effort.

The daughter of a great mathematician who succumbed to mental illness may have inherited his genius, but is afraid to acknowledge that possibility because it might mean that she also inherited his madness.

The play is about her facing up to the hope that they might not go together or, perhaps, that one might be worth the risk of the other.

It is, therefore, a play about fear. Everything the young woman does is coloured by the shadow of what she, as her father's carer, watched him go through and sees as a possible future for herself.

And it is exactly that quality that the director has somehow washed almost completely out of the play.

Sally Oliver gives the central character a pleasingly normal - that is to say, nice - personality, and brings considerable charm and stage presence to the role.

But what we almost never see is the fear behind the eyes, the constant taking of her own mental temperature in search of signs of approaching madness.

With that central theme of the play muted, something else does come to the fore. Without giving away one of the few surprises, let me just say that at a key moment two other characters are faced with having to believe something Oliver's character tells them.

And their hesitation, however momentary, is a kind of betrayal that has considerable dramatic power, even on the subdued emotional level of this production.

The posters on the Underground say this is a play about which is more important - truth or love. I don't think that is what this play is about, but if it is, then that aspect of the play does come through.

The rest of the cast are, well, nice.

As the sister who went off to live her life rather than caring for father, Aislinn Sands is stuck with a character written as a cliché - cool, bossy, self-centred - and neither she nor the director is able to do much with it.

Neal Foster as a young mathematician and love interest walks the careful line between being too nerdy and too smooth, but the very fact that I have to praise him through negatives suggests that he hasn't found much to bring to the role.

Terence Booth is amiable and sympathetic as the father, seen mainly in flashbacks.

At its best this is a quietly moving play. With the emotional volume turned down so very far as it is here, you have to strain to catch occasional hints of what might have been.

Gerald Berkowitz

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