Household words

FRINGE ROUND-UP: Kitchensink; Tricycle, Kilburn. The Seal Wife: Warehouse, Croydon.

When the definitive social history of 20th-century Britain is written, you can bet your mortgage there'll be a chapter on the semi-detached house: not just a place where people lived, but a symbol of social aspiration, post-war regeneration and (often as not) failed dreams. Perhaps there'll even be a footnote about the role of the semi in the arts: from the films of Mike Leigh to Brookside via Terry and June. Paul Mercier's new play Kitchensink (performed by the acclaimed Dublin company Passion Machine) suggests that, in the Irish Republic too, the semi has a symbolic significance that belies its ordinariness, offering generations of young people from the Fifties onwards an escape from the "suffocating gentility" of their parents. As one character about to buy into a brave new world of all-mod- cons exclaims: "Farewell, Victoriana."

Kitchensink begins in the early Sixties with Daniel, a small boy playing soldiers beside an unfinished semi. He's wearing a mask which gives him a dumb expression, but, when he enters the building, he removes it. A little girl, Helen, comes in after him. She, too, takes off her mask. So does everyone else who visits the semi, as if the house were giving them freedom to be themselves.

The tone of the play is set when the children decide to take a trip to the nearby Devil Forest. Like so many other dreams in Kitchensink, the trip never happens. The play proceeds in a series of short scenes, Polaroid snapshots of Helen's life for the most part. The first semi is replaced by others, but each one yields a new disappointment. By the end, predictably, the Devil Forest has become Monument Down, and the monument is itself a folly "like everything today". Helen's husband teeters on the brink of alcoholism, and her Barbie-doll daughter is manipulative and spoilt.

There is something insufferably reactionary about all this: a vision of society where progress is only ever for the worse. Everyone is going to hell, and there are no return tickets. Even the children in the first scene are poisoned by a precocious nostalgia, lamenting the arrival of the first estate to blot the landscape. The result is like watching one of Philip Larkin's most curmudgeonly anti-modern poems adapted for the stage, but with neither Larkin's redemptive romanticism nor, sadly, his brevity.

An exceptional stillness hangs over Sue Glover's The Seal Wife (at the Warehouse). It's the natural quiet of a Scottish beach, which makes it hard to believe that Croydon, with its Sixties office blocks and low-flying jets, is just outside. Hard to believe, too, that Glover's play, written for Edinburgh's Little Lyceum in 1981, hasn't made it south of the border before now, even if it's not quite the finished article that her 1991 play Bondagers was.

At The Seal Wife's heart is the myth of the "silkies", seal-people who shed their skins and take on human shape. Alec (Mark Bonnar) is a loner who wanders the seashore with his shotgun, hunting seals. Rona (Lorna McDevitt) is a mysterious girl who emerges naked from the sea one spring night. Alec carries her home in his arms, to tend a powder burn on her ankle, and soon she is pregnant.

Both play and production boast a low-key naturalism, which rubs up neatly against the more opaque, symbolic aspects of the tale. No one ever mentions the silkie myth: Rona might be a runaway from a travelling fair, her burn easily explained away as an accident. Wisely, too, McDevitt doesn't strain to give Rona any preternatural aura. The myth of the hunter and the hunted, the free and the constrained, is allowed to work its magic unadorned, and - despite an ending that fizzles when it should ignite, following Rona's disappearance - it does so very well.

`Kitchensink' is at the Tricycle, Kilburn High Rd, London NW6 (0171-328 1000) to 1 March. `The Seal Wife' is at the Warehouse, Croydon (0181-680 4060) to 16 Feb

Adrian Turpin

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