Arts: The shallow end of the gene pool

THEATRE: THE FOUR ALICE BAKERS; BIRMINGHAM REP

EDWARD ALBEE gave us Three Tall Women. Now, in The Four Alice Bakers, Fay Weldon gives us "Three Cloned Women" and any number of issues, but fails to deliver one decent play. The long first act takes for ever to reach the revelation that has already been disclosed in all the Birmingham Rep's publicity, and is, indeed, the hook of the piece.

Far from constituting your average family - one possible victim of childhood abuse, one possible lesbian, one case of a male mind trapped in a female body - the grown-up Baker daughters are, in fact, genetically identical clones, developed from his barren wife's mammary tissue by a genetic scientist, Professor Richie Baker.

The circumstances of this disclosure, and the play's glitzy satiric framework, is a television programme, the The Harry Harper Ethical Show, whose eponymous host seems to be a prurient, shimmying musical-hall cross between Jerry Springer, Archie Rice in The Entertainer and Bryan Appleyard. The promising obscenity of this conception declines to live on stage, though. There's a built-in deadening disparity between the unseen, notional, noisily aroused studio audience whose prejudices Harry shamelessly manipulates, and the real-life audience at The Four Alice Bakers, who simply can't give actor Michael Cashman the buzz and energy Harry thrives on.

The result, in Bill Alexander's production, is inert and embarrassing and does not stop you noticing the implausibilities, human and technical. Would Baker, supposedly the current chair of the Society for the Public Understanding of Science, really be so lacking in media savvy as to appear on this programme in the first place, particularly given his secret? And why do the television cameras (and the images on the monitors scattered around the stage) not home in on the real action in the studio? There's some ludicrously anti-dramatic framing here, such as leaving the narcissistic host completely out of shot when he kneels to make a climactic, soulful appeal to one of the guests.

But then the play, which shuttles undynamically between the studio, a hospitality suite suspended in mid-air, and flashbacks unfolded on a curling revolve, is a feast of misplaced emphases. The articles in the published programme are, it turns out, more interesting than the drama on the technical and ethical issues which arise from cloning. Rather than stimulate debate, Weldon's play precludes it. The Four Alice Bakers, in effect, says: "Look, people will be no less individuals when they are cloned and, if reasonable, they won't mind. And here is my proof - three daughters who eventually calm down and see the unthreatening sense of it." But this allegedly argument- clinching family is the entire invention of Weldon and, besides, did not grow up in the knowledge that they were clones. So the argument is whoppingly rigged.

I really admire the way Bill Alexander is unafraid of giving over the huge main stage of the Rep to dramas that tackle key issues of the moment - the debate about royalty and republicanism in Peter Whelan's award-winning Divine Right and, less successfully, press intrusion in David Lodge's Home Truths. I hope the dismal reception invited by this current dud will not deter him from pursuing this policy in the future.

Paul Taylor

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