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Arts: Theatre: Not black or comic enough

THE DEPICTION of a small community slipping loose from its moral moorings in times of war is not new, be it the sinister self-righteousness of Max Frish's Andorra or Michael Palin's pig pandemonium in A Private Function. Christopher William Hill's new play places this moral dilapidation against the backdrop of the tiny Cornish village of St Melor in the back- against-the-wall days of 1941.

The Mutton brothers are struggling to keep their butcher's shop running in the face of rationing. Eldest brother Hamilton is filled with a blend of violence and angry religiosity. Lam is the simpleton, 21 going on eight, who dreams of becoming a cowboy and wears a sheriff's star to prove it. Chubby middle brother Plum is the piggy-in-the-middle, trying to keep the peace.

And piggies are what this play is all about. Despite the prevalence of black-marketing, with everyone from the pastor to the WI in on the act, the Mutton brothers have so far refused to break the law. But when overwhelming temptation steps into Hamilton's path, Lam's beloved pig Nell is for the pork chop.

Once he has deviated from the path of righteousness, Hamilton's life descends into lawless chaos when the local constable discovers the evidence of the illegal slaughtering. Having been blooded with Nell, Lam has to see his friend the PC butchered too.

In his combination of bleak actions with near-slapstick, Hill has been supping from the cup of fellow Cornish playwright Nick Darke. Yet Lam's writing is neither black enough nor comic enough to fully succeed as a black comedy. One feels there is a good play struggling to get out, but with pacing as uneven as the cobbled lanes of St Melor, and very little growth within the characters, it is hard to say whether the fault lies with the production or the script.

Despite having participated in the slaughter of both his best friends - porcine and human - Lam at the end of the play is still the same naive innocent who thinks that Truro will be like Kansas City. Hamilton rants from first to his last, and it is only quiet Plum (Ian Sanders) who manages to bring the matter to a close.

Nevertheless, the cast work hard to make the characters genuine, with Gary Whitaker's Lam a picture of engaging simplicity, and Chris MacDonnell's Hamilton a tower of De Niro-esque rage. Yet in the end, Lam is less a black comedy than a Grand Guignol episode of Last of the Summer Wine.

To 27 Nov, 01392 493493