A first-class passage to Africa

THEATRE Uganda Royal Court, London
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The Independent Culture
When Billy was declared redundant, they gave him a set of top- grade suitcases. It turned out to be a tactless present, for shortly afterwards something happened that made Liverpudlian Billy, whose wanderlust had never taken him much further than Rhyl, disinclined to venture beyond the garden gate. Set around the fifth anniversary (on New Year's Eve) of his beloved wife's death, Judith Johnson's Uganda explores the ways in which Billy has put not just his own life on hold.

As David Fielder's fine performance communicates, there is something tyrannical in his widower's pitiability and in the gruff, snorting self- dismissiveness with which he deprecates his children's attempts to jolt him out of his rut. Sitting in his chair glaring at the television, he's like some hunch-shouldered, unassuming despot.

But though he has lost interest in the immediate world around him, he keeps a troubled eye on the wide world (the miseries of Bosnia etc) through his atlas and foreign news reports. Private Eye has made it impossible to mention Uganda without evoking images of lying back and thinking of England; Johnson's play is so called not to draw on any of those overtones, however, but because that country was the birthplace of the drama's catalytic character, Aakash (Kulvinder Ghir).

A personable young Indian from London, he's introduced to the family over Christmas by Trish, Billy's favourite daughter, whose fierce self- sacrificing devotion to her father is excellently portrayed by Sally Rogers. Love for Trish is not the only thing the two men have in common, for it emerges that Aakash is also a widower, though he copes with his grief in a diametrically opposite way. What could have been a competitive relationship becomes a stimulating rapport.

The flame of life rekindled across the generations and the racial divide may sound altogether too heart-warming a subject for comfort. But in the unforced authenticity of Polly Teale's beautifully acted production, it is the truthfulness of Johnson's writing rather than its intimidating sentimentality that creates the more forceful impression. For example, though he's not fully conscious of the fact, one of Billy's daughters, Emily (Tanya Ronder), is a lesbian, and the play expertly captures the way in which, for the lower-middle-class younger members of the family, their sister's affair with Sal (Ruth Lass) is both no big deal and yet not something they are entirely comfortable with.

Rather than make statements, Johnson prefers to show how the waywardness of life has scant respect for the pious point. After Billy's funeral, for instance, his siblings try to egg on Tommy (Karl Draper) to sit in his father's chair. He chickens out, and the lesbian sister, who had had a more painful relationship than any of them with the deceased, defiantly yet gingerly accepts the dare. This could have been too patly symbolic, redolent of gender-swaps and revised priorities, if Johnson hadn't whipped the rug out from under the moment by having Tommy do a ghost impression and scare Emily half to death. It's also good that, after some spirited shrieking indignation, she, too, is permitted to see the joke.

Apart from the sort of remonstration with the photograph of a dead loved one that I'm inclined to think happens only in plays and films ("You rotten, selfish cow..."), Uganda is admirably and unpretentiously lifelike.

n At the Royal Court to 25 Mar. Booking: 0171-730 1745