Like father, like son

THEATRE: True Brit; Birmingham Rep
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The Independent Culture
Just as 18 years of Tory rule crashed to an end, here's a play about a couple who fled from the values of that era early on and set up a hotel business in southern Spain. The good life is turning distinctly sour, though, when we meet this pair of ex-pats, who haven't been back to England in a decade and a half, in Ken Blakeson's True Brit. The practised, mine-host bonhomie of Frank Grimes's Charlie Martin, one-time photographer now master chef, has become a bibulous, faintly self-hating parody of itself. Resenting his current class of customer ("ex-teachers and their spreading wives"), he peoples his memories with rather more celebrities than actually ever stayed with them and he's bitter that the beautiful view has been defaced by the plastic greenhouses of an agricultural research centre which is trying to make the desert scrub fertile. Helen (Elizabeth Mansfield), his second wife and junior by some 15 years, has retreated from this disillusion into art or, as Charlie sees it, into covering endless bits of board with "nancy" paint.

The pre-season period is stirred from its stagnancy by the arrival first of Guillermo (Justin Avoth), virtually the adoptive son of the childless Martins and newly-appointed head of the research centre, and then, as paying guests, of Guy Lankester's studiedly loutish Mel, a shady young British entrepreneur and his nubile Ukrainian girlfriend Natalka (excellent Bonnie Engstrom), who is merely one instance of the unscrupulous way he has cleaned up in Eastern Europe. The insolent edge to Mel's behaviour - the noisy love-making, the fault-finding with the luxury fare, the flaunting of moneyed heartlessness and, in particular, his needlingly destructive interest in Guillermo's status in the household - makes it plain that he is agitating for a showdown and that Charlie's first marriage, which ended in desertion and suicide, is not going to remain a dusty closed book for long.

Blakeson's intelligent, absorbing play asks you to imagine how it would feel to meet, as a stranger out of the blue, a grown-up son whose obnoxious values are more like yours than you care to admit, once the generational adjustments have been made. "I'm not a saint, Charlie, but I'm an up-front bastard," brags Mel. Perhaps the hippy behaviour of Charlie in the late Sixties and early Seventies (leaving wife and child in order to go on the razzle with the dolly birds in Brighton) differs from the brazen, entrepreneurial hedonism of his son principally in its hypocrisy and self- deception and, besides, Mel works a hell of a lot harder for his sadistic, contractual pleasures. And how can you pride yourself on having abandoned uncaring Britain for moral reasons, if you are thereby leaving all the caring to somebody else?

The play has its weak areas. There's just not enough circumstantial texture to the relationship between the Martins and Guillermo, for whom Helen, it is intimated, feels something more than mother love. Mel is apparently on the run from people he has antagonised while trying to engineer a lucrative metal-exporting scam in the Ukraine, but though his need for temporary sanctuary enables him to lob a telling accusation at his father ("what's a few days after all those missing years?"), there's no real attempt to generate tension over his plight. What the play does best is enable you to see a complicated mixture of right and wrong on all sides, a feature finely conveyed in Anthony Clark's engrossing production.

To 17 May (0121-644 6464)

Paul Taylor

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