The Theatreguide.London Review
Haymarket Theatre February-April 2008
Edward Bond's 1973 play is a complex - some might even say confused - mix of genres that changes modes and tones repeatedly, jumping from high comedy to low farce to murky metaphysics and back without warning.
While some may find this intriguing, others - including, it sometimes appears, some of the cast of this revival - are likely to get lost and/or tune out before the ending.
After a particularly clumsily staged opening in which (as we figure out later) a man drowns, the scene shifts to a millinery shop in an Edwardian coastal village, where the town's grande dame is harassing the poor shopkeeper with her whims and demands.
It's a delightful scene, and played with absolute mastery by Eileen Atkins as the woman who will later explain that she considers it her moral obligation, to both her own class and those below her, to be difficult and eccentric, and by David Haig, who can do befuddled exasperation better than anyone.
(Indeed, I'm not sure it is a criticism or a compliment to point out that, at least in these opening moments, the two stars, along with Marcia Warren as the rich lady's ditsy companion, are thoroughly typecast. On the one hand, you are aware that they could do this shtick in their sleep; on the other hand, they do do it so very well.)
The comic tone is maintained when we learn that the shopkeeper is a total loony, who believes that anyone who comes to their village by sea is actually an invader from outer space, though the realisation that paranoia led to the earlier drowning does add a sour touch.
Things get light again when Atkins' character leads the Village Ladies' Amateur Dramatic Society in a very silly pageant rehearsal, but then the scene goes on at least three times longer than it should, dissipating all its comic energy.
The same thing happens later when the shopkeeper goes completely bonkers, cutting up fabrics and tossing them wildly about the stage, as the scene drags on far beyond the point of being funny.
Meanwhile, we have also met the intended fiancée of the drowned man, his friend who survived the boating accident, and an old fisherman who lives in a hut on the shore dispensing gnomic wisdom to whoever passes by.
These three pop up from time to time in various permutations to have metaphysical discussions that range from the cliché-ridden ('How can you ever escape yourself?' 'If you look at life closely, it is unbearable.') to the totally opaque (something about interstellar rats).
Eventually, whatever coherence you might have hoped to find falls away. David Haig's character wanders around the edges of the action getting madder and madder until the play eventually forgets about him.
A potentially comic scene of everything going wrong at the drowned man's funeral has no rhythm or energy. And then, after some more philosophising ('Has anything been worthwhile? 'No.'), the play just stops, in a secondary character's mid-sentence.
Trying to mix modes and tones, to somehow get both farce and philosophising into the same play, is very difficult, and either Edward Bond didn't do it, or director Jonathan Kent has been unable to show that he did.
Even on opening night there was the vague scent of flop sweat about the actors, the sense that once out of the familiar territory of the opening scenes, they were lost and increasingly uncomfortable. And that, too, has to be considered a director's failure.
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