On The Fringe: Domestic blitz

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The Independent Culture
In The People Downstairs (Young Vic Studio), Sara, a dancer who has broken her leg, rides out a winter's convalescence unwillingly listening to the people downstairs. Michael is a t'ai chi-practising, baseball bat- wielding, Canadian heroin addict. Didi is his French lover, who wears a lot of black to match her bruises. "They're either fighting or fucking, I don't know which is worse," says Sara's flatmate Jelly, a black single mother, with more pressing things to worry about. "Treat them like TV," advises Sara's jazz-musician boyfriend, Ben. But the walls between the two houses are paper-thin, and the nightly thuds and screams force themselves into Sara's nightmares about her violent father in Ireland, which are back-projected on to the gauzy wallpaper of Katrina Lindsay's tricksy set. Unlike television, they can't be turned off.

Life in the city is far from pretty in Deirdre Strath's new play (the second part of the Wink ensemble's trilogy about urban living, which began promisingly last year with The Art of Random Whistling). Domestic violence is only part of the malaise. Sara's leg is fractured. Now her relationship with the sanguine Ben is cracking, too, as he tours the country. Jelly is haunted by the return of her former lover, the perpetually stoned Mark.

In one short scene, days go by. The phone never stops ringing. Mark is seen pushing around a toilet on wheels, his head shoved down the bowl. (Strath likes her vomit: in another scene Sara hurls into a kettle.) "I'm fed up with the whole sick, twisted lot of you," says Jelly. But even her eventual escape from this circle of hell is depressing. The nearest thing to redemption her new life appears to offer her is underfloor heating.

The most striking aspect of The People Downstairs is how little it's actually interested in the people downstairs. None of the play's characters is especially well-drawn, but Didi and Michael are sketchier than the rest. In place of a personality, she has an accent. He is a textbook fictional psycho, distant cousin to Max Cady, the avenging angel played by Robert De Niro in Cape Fear. His dialogue flirts with the cinematic, too. Asked what part of Canada he comes from, Michael replies, "I don't remember."

Didi and Michael remain cyphers. The brutality of their present-day relationship is only made real when filtered through Sara's memories of the past. It's as if Strath starts from the assumption that the lives of "the people downstairs" can't be understood by the rest of us. And, though that may be an accurate expression of how alienated and isolated cities have made us all, somehow it doesn't seem enough.

In the Young Vic's main house, the Oxford Stage Company revive Charlotte Keatley's My Mother Said I Never Should, which, since it was written in 1987, has become Britain's most performed play and an instant modern classic. It's the first time I'd seen it and - blame the hype perhaps - it came as a slight disappointment, let down a little by its feelgood ending.

Keatley's four-hander follows four generations of women in one family through this century, showing how their lives are moulded by - and in opposition to - their mothers' expectations. The play's twist is that hippie Jackie gives up her daughter to be brought up by her mother. What price the generation gap, then?

The acting is solid and unfussy (there's a particularly fine performance from Joan Campion as Doris, who has to play from eight to 80), while Dominic Cooke's production is admirably clear but feels slightly dutiful. It's as if he were striving not after a living interpretation but that mythical beast, the "definitive production".

'The People Downstairs' and 'My Mother Said I Never Should' both at the Young Vic, London SE1 (0171-928 6363) to 31 May. 'My Mother Said' then tours nationally