Beyond the bed-sit: Jeffrey Wainwright on a new Pam Gems in Manchester

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The Independent Culture
I take no persuading to see a play about Third World debt and not even one of those programme notes that read like a briefing for a United Nations subcommittee can dampen my ardour. Any glimpse beyond the bed- sit of much contemporary British drama can feel welcome. So Pam Gems's boldness in setting her new play, Deborah's Daughter, in a post- colonial North African country, and at the macro-political level of internal revolution and multi-national penetration must be applauded. The trouble is that it remains a virtuous idea with characters and plot only painted on.

It begins unusually and nervily. There is an important ceremony with European dignitaries on the podium, accompanied by uneasy local army officers. The crowd sounds restless. The guest-of-honour speaks first in Arabic, thus postponing our opportunity to start interpreting this foreign circumstance. It is a disorientation that the plot seeks to maintain throughout, at the cost of seeming wilfully obscure.

The speaker is Deborah Pedersen (Anna Carteret), widow of an oil magnate whose corporation is seeking to cement its position with a dollars 20m benefaction. Besides her naivety and faltering idealism, she has brought her 17- year-old daughter Stephanie and boyfriend David, her mother Rhoda, an aristocratic rhinoceros with a hip-flask, and Eric Bellairs, louche, enigmatic, linen- suited - that Secret Service sort of thing. Their host, the colonel on the podium, Hassan (Raad Rawi), is handsome, courtly, dangerous, ironic, inscrutable.

There is a melodramatic coup. Hassan all but seduces Deborah, and perhaps Stephanie, before materialising as the new leader of the country in the final scene. This scene at last provides an out-and-out examination of the issues which we know is bound to come. It is tiresomely deferred, however, while the company wanders in the desert, to sporadic gunfire offstage and some dire comic business on. From the maddening repetition of Rhoda's bluff tippling to Stephanie's pert vacuity, the writing of the secondary characters is painfully thin.

The play is partially redeemed by the rhetorical confrontation between Deborah and Hassan. She anticipates the totalitarianism and corruption of his regime and speaks for those who do not want to define their lives by fighting. He insists upon the luxury of her Western moral perspectives and the palpable suffering of his people. Here, Carteret and Rawi are at their most forceful, and the real substance of the play at last becomes apparent. It is a pity that Pam Gems has not found ways to dramatise it more fully through the action of the play. Similarly, the conflict between the three generations of women is vitiated by the underdrawn characterisation of Rhoda and Stephanie.

There is one secondary figure who compels attention - Nasser Memarzia's Islamicist officer. There's enough about him to glimpse the play's most contemporary point and the further inflections of the play's themes that his development might have entailed.

To 26 March at the Library Theatre, Manchester (061-236 7110)