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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Scenes From the Back of Beyond
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs       November 2006

Meredith Oakes's new play is a well-written and frequently eloquent discussion of serious issues, with a plot that brings the theoretical debates dramatically alive.

Its only problem is that it is a half-century out of date, devoting its energies to questions that don't really matter any more, so the effect is something like stumbling on a fifty-year-old copy of a left-wing magazine.

Set in Australia in 1959, the play centres on Bill and Helen, suburban socialists who drink wine on the veranda while dreaming of a utopian future that is half Soviet communism and half the product of pure scientific progress (Indeed, their dream future sounds a lot like a Sydney suburb in 1959, but for everyone).

But a scientist friend, far from being the selfless dynamic hero of Soviet posters, knocks up their teenage daughter, and they have to face and cope with the gap between reality and their romanticised fantasies.

Even on its own terms, the naive idealisation of both science and Soviets feels more early-1930s than late-1950s, and some chunks of this script are the sort of thing Edward Albee parodied in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1962. And by 1959 any unreconstructed Communist who denied the existence of the gulags would be a pathetic joke.

But perhaps that sense of outdatedness is implied by Oakes's title. More of a problem is that another fifty years have made much of what the characters feel so strongly about simply irrelevant, so that, as impassioned as their debates are, we have trouble really caring.

Oakes, director Ramin Gray and their cast do succeed remarkably in convincing us that these characters are real and that their concerns, however dated, are heartfelt.

When the wife asks what they are to do about the daughter and the husband replies with his feelings about threats to the trade union movement in Australia, we understand that he isn't really evading the issue, because politics, theory and personal concerns are all bound together in their minds and hearts.

And the writing is strong, encompassing waspish exchanges like 'You have no idea how I feel about anything.' - ' It's not for want of being told' and sincere and touching expressions of faith like 'There has to be a connection from person to person. Doesn't there?'

Most of the weight of the show lies on Martin Turner as Bill, and he carries it well - as unlikely and irrelevant as this character may be (and one of the play's more touching moments comes when he catches a brief glimpse of his own irrelevance), we believe that he feels what he feels.

Penny Downie as Helen is slightly less successful, in part because the script makes her parrot the 1930s party line too slavishly. The supporting cast is adequate.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Scenes From The Back Of Beyond - Royal Court Theatre 2006

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