Page 13, 1st June 2007

1st June 2007
Page 13
Page 13, 1st June 2007 — Families go to war on the London stage
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Organisations: Royal Court
Locations: Hamlet, London

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Families go to war on the London stage

Leaves of Glass

SOHO THEATRE

As long as theatre has existed representations of the dysfunctional family have been at its heart. From Hamlet to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? families in different states of war and distress have offered dramatists a rich source to mine. If the swathe of new writing currently flooding the London stage is anything to go by, this tradition appears to be very much alive. Two new plays that opened in London recently take the dysfunctional family to the extreme, with an unmistakably, and perhaps unsurprisingly, modern spin on the representation of the family set-up as a battleground. Leaves of Glass is the new play by director Philip Ridley, who caused a fair amount of tiresome moralising from some quarters with his previous play Mercury Fur. That play was set in a nightmarish future in which businessmen payed to act out murderous fantasies on children ,although it was as much about the troubled relationship between two brothers. And it is to a troubled sibling relationship to which Ridley returns in Leaves of Glass. Ben Whishaw, who starred in Mercury Fur, again takes the lead here. He plays Stephen, a successful businessman who runs a company called Grafitti Busters. Stephen employs his apparently insane brother Barry (Trystran Gravelle) who is haunted by hallucinatory visits from Mr Ghost. The dark heart of the play remains just below the surface of an initially soap-like plot before it is revealed in a series of tense scenes and revealing monologues. The brothers are battling the demons of their father's suicide and revelations of jealousy, anger and abuse pour out in recriminating torrents. The play is a powerful evocation of the lies spun by families about their collective past in order to keep themselves afloat in the present, and echoes O'Neill's epic Long Day's Journey into Night. Whishaw excels as Stephen. His hollow features and brooding presence dominate the stage. He is ably supported by the rest of the small cast. Ruth Sheen is wonderful as the brother's batty mother, who poignantly fights to maintain her family's veneer of unity. However, if 1 have a gripe with Leaves of Glass it is that the play's power is slightly dissipated by its two-hour running time. A number of scenes outstay their welcome and the revelations in the final quarter take a tad too long to reach. With some sensible cutting this play could be outstanding. In terms of length, My Child at the Royal Court is at the other end of the scale. Neil Bartlett's debut play is extremely short: 40 minutes in all. It is an explosive piece nevertheless, telling the story of an unnamed couple at war over the custody of their son. The writing is taut and spare and the father's inevitable, desperate attempt to solve his situation is skillfully handled. The play works because Bartlett never loads the moral dice. Instead we have a world in which everyone is at loggerheads. Neither parent is likeable and the child is unpleasantly brattish (played brilliantly by Adam Arnold). His arm goes from bruised to black over the course of the play, as thought of his wellbeing is lost amid his parents' battle of wills. The staging is bold, if slightly confusing. The Court's Theatre Downstairs has been transformed into a small, traverse stage, designed to represent a carriage of tube train, for no reason that is obviously apparent. Despite this, the setting allows for the production to develop a pleasingly claustrophobic quality. Bartlett's debut is a solid one and promises much. However, I can't help feeling this is something of a missed opportunity, due to the play's brevity. The emotional impact of My Child is undeniable and it may seem churlish to criticise one play for being too short and another for being too long. But as powerful as the play is, it becomes difficult to care enough about characters who you spend so little time with, and that is a real shame.

Will Gore




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