Arts: Cornwall or bust

THE BRITISH road novel and movie have always suffered from an inferiority complex with respect to their beefy American cousins. Partly this is due to the nature of our roads - 187 miles of M1 is hardly in the same league as the sweeping 2,000 mile grandeur of Route 66, and the persistence of roadworks on the M5 means that one is unlikely to enjoy that windswept, "nothing between us and the horizon" feeling of Thelma and Louise.

But primarily it is a problem of association. It is hard to find the sense of dislocation and rural otherness so useful to American authors within the narrow confines of this scepter'd isle. There are few banjo- playing inbreds in Basingstoke - although perhaps not as few as one would like.

Nevertheless, Dorset writer Jon Ivay has made a valiant stab at the genre with his new play Freebird. It centres on a trip by three motorcycle couriers, the epitome of late Nineties urbanism, to darkest Cornwall in search of a remote cannabis farm. What starts out as a relaxed weekend in the country gradually transforms itself into a bad trip, in every sense of the term. With its saddlebags packed full of humour and pathos, this is a very British Easy Rider.

Ivay and director Ian Hastings have overcome one obvious handicap in the devel- opment of the road play, namely the fact that a stage is a stationary environment. The economical set is dominated by three motorcycles facing the audience, and the use of iconic back projection, sound and lighting succeeds in creating a genuine sense of motion.

The first act is an entertaining collection of on-the-road snapshots which explore the world of the biker, the small-time criminal and the druggy with dry wit. William Ely's Tyg, who at first glance is an "all mouth and trousers" biker, reveals himself to be a far less secure and more loveable character. John Berlyne's performance manages to lift permanently stoned drug connoisseur Grouch out of the mire of the dopehead cliche. Grouch may be a caricature, but he is a multidimensional one who is touching and funny rather than just gratingly monotonous. Together with Fred, played by Ivay himself, they stumble into the countryside weighted down by all the city-dweller's prejudices about this strange rural world.

Unfortunately, the second act fails to live up to the promise of the first, as the characters slip into a mushroom-induced haze and the play slithers to a hallucinogenic ending. The plot - shaky from the start - finally unravels completely with William Burroughs replacing Alan Ayckbourn at the scriptwriting controls. This is a shame, since Ivay has a keen talent for realistic dialogue and characterisation. However, the unsatisfying final half-hour should not be allowed to overshadow a pleasant evening of humour, recreational drug use and loud rock music.

Toby O'Connor Morse