Lifelessness is what you make it : THEATRE : To the Lighthouse Lyric Studio, London

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The Independent Culture
"Pray Heaven that the inside of my head may not be exposed," intone the characters in Empty Spaces' new stage adaptation of To the Lighthouse. A futile wish, given that the insides of her characters' heads are to the novels of Virginia Woolf rough ly what race horses are to the novels of Dick Francis. With its voice-overs, its point-of-view shots, and the sensation it can create of the camera as receiving consciousness, cinema is, on the face of it, the medium best suited to convey the Woolfian st ream of consciousness technique in another mode. "The part of us which appears is so momentary," Woolf wrote in Mrs Dalloway, "compared with the other unseen part of us, which spreads wide." How to make that visible is the paradoxical problem of the thea trical adapter.

What happens on the surface in the book can be fairly easily outlined. The first part focuses on an evening in the holiday home on Skye of the tyrannical, academic Mr Ramsay and his beautiful wife who is what one critic called a "metaphysical hostess", adept not just at dinner parties but at establishing more ethereal forms of communion. Split by the central section (in which the war and Mrs Ramsay's death are presented, as it were, in parenthesis), the book shows us this large family and their friends at two stages: with the mother-figure and, 10 years later, without her. But the trip to the lighthouse, called off by rain in the first part, is achieved in the last and the painting begun back then is finally accomplished.

The focus here is not on events, but on the way the characters live in terms of each other's minds: Mrs Ramsay is as much of a presence dead as alive. Indeed, one of the successful features of Andrew Holmes's production is the way Victoria Plum, the actress playing this character, quickens into re-animation in the final section whenever the painter, Lily Briscoe (Steph Bramwell), hugs her in fond remembrance - sequences made the more moving by the manner in which her arms flop down lifeless afterwards.

But this physicalised rendering of psychological tensions and subterranean impulses suits some sections of the book better than others. Fine to present the resistance of Cam and James to their father's tyranny in primal, patricidal cartoon-style, but to evoke the shifting mood of the sacramental dinner party in terms of constantly readjusting spatial relationships, with people standing on chairs to address one another or snatched into brief, insulting dances involves obliterating any real sense of the social occasion to which all this was the undercurrent. The sung phrases through which the characters project their inner world are mostly an embarrassment. To have Lilly twirl round lilting "I'm in love with this world!" makes you think, murderously, ofPollyanna. There's a difference between what you can have a character think and what you can make him or her say out loud, as was proved when Mrs Ramsay's line "The boeuf en daube will be entirely spoiled. What have I done with my life?" was met with sup pressed titters.

Staged on a set covered with what looks like a cross between red autumn leaves and dried seaweed, and performed by a cast of only four overworked actors, this To the Lighthouse is, to a large extent, a failure, but a brave, interesting and honourable one.

`To the Lighthouse' ends 28 Jan. Booking: 081-741 8701

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