Like father, like son

Waking Soho Theatre Company, London
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The Independent Culture
It's a dismaying irony that many of us only get round to forgiving our fathers when we realise that, to all intents and purposes, we have become them. And, by then, it's too late. Lin Coughlan's Waking takes a shrewd, compassionate look at three generations of men from that perspective: Sean (James Greene), a sixtysomething Irish stonemason; his estranged and still bitterly resentful son, Michael (Steve Nicolson), who lives in England; and Michael's thoroughly anglicised 13-year-old son, Brian (Lee Turnbull).

Set during a heatwave on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, the play unfolds in Sean's yard, which is picturesquely piled up with headstones and holy statues. When Michael and Brian arrive for a reluctant holiday, wounds instantly reopen and tensions multiply. In a moral sense, Michael has not come limping home, but in a literal sense he has - Coughlan has put this character on crutches, the result of a career-ending accident in the navy. Morbidly touchy about the symbolism of this, Michael is placed at a further disadvantage in the generational power battles when he discovers that Nicola Redmond's Sarah, the fanciable next-door neighbour of about his age, is in fact in a relationship with old Sean.

Premiered in Abigail Morris's humorous, sympathetically performed production, Waking is the first show by the Soho Theatre Company since it moved into its new home - the former synagogue at 21 Dean Street. The premises are about to be converted into the Soho Theatre and Writers' Centre which, as well as staging productions for the public in a flexible, 200-seat performance space, will be the base of the company's training and development programme for new and emerging writers. With the Royal Court's studio work now mounted at the Ambassadors, and the Soho Theatre moving smack into the heart of its eponymous locality, there's an exciting sense of the fringe replanting itself in and livening up the West End.

Staged in a temporary 92-seat space, Waking is the start of a four-play sneak preview season before the buildings take over. I have certainly seen more eye-catching productions: perfectly hideous white swagging over the stage, for example, flopped down a notch towards the end, supposedly evoking the ocean, but, in practice, provoking titters when Michael remarks that "the Atlantic isn't like any other ocean in the world". He can say that again.

Thanks to Ms Redmond's strong, sensitive performance as Sarah, it's only afterwards that you feel there is something a little contrived character- wise about a sturdy, handsome woman who first holes herself up in a convent as a nun and then bunks up with an old codger. Such women are presumably thin on the ground. More deftly demonstrated are the ways in which Michael is guilty of many of the failings for which he castigates his old father - even down to the manner in which each of them tries to wriggle out of professing paternal love with the same embarrassed "sure, I'm no good at that kind of malarkey".

The washing and laying out of Sean's dead body is undoubtedly moving but would be more so, for this critic, if Michael weren't kitted out with that emotionally blackmailing disability. Trying to get his deceased father into a shirt, he slips, is forced to cradle him, and then sings one of his songs. It's the equivalent of being sprayed with tear gas: for honour's sake, you keep dry eyed.

To 29 March. Booking: 0171-420 0022

Paul Taylor