Review: The history women

THEATRE The Shift Young Vic, London

It's a truth universally acknowledged that people who undergo hypnosis to recall their past lives are seldom content to unearth everyday existences, preferring instead to have been Julius Caesar, Hannibal or Cleopatra, or at the very least to have known them. In The Shift - a new play devised by Academy Productions and scripted by The Independent's former theatre editor, Clare Bayley - a minor character is interviewed about this "regression therapy", and, true to form, she reveals that she was once a prostitute who serviced Napoleon by the banks of the Danube. But this wasn't the first past life she came across. First, she remembered being an anonymous woman standing by a kitchen sink, a discovery that puts an unexpectedly domestic spin on the interviewee's rhetorical question: "How can you hope to understand your present self unless you fully understand your past?"

It's a quote that could stand happily as an epigraph for The Shift, which intercuts the lives of three generations of women from one family. In 1947, Tilly Radcliffe reaches the pinnacle of her acting career, understudying Ophelia in Hamlet, before early marriage puts an end to her career. In 1968, Tilly's daughter Celia runs away to a life of novel-writing and student politics in Paris. Meanwhile, in 1997, Celia's 14-year-old daughter Izzy makes video diaries, plays with a Ouija board and prepares for her own appearance as Ophelia in her school play.

The eponymous shift is both Tilly's Ophelia costume, handed down to her granddaughter, as well as the shift in the position of women in society in the last 50 years: new freedoms, new attitudes, even New Labour gets a look in, as does new technology, with the on-stage action accompanied by video film. Into this mix is thrown a lecture on the life of Elizabeth Siddal, the opium-addicted model for John Everett Millais's portrait of the drowned Ophelia.

The Shift doesn't exactly bulge with plot: it progresses slantwise, drawing out the connections between the three women's lives, rather than galloping towards a climax. It does, however, bulge with material, in that overloaded way plays devised through improvisation often do. Bayley does a good job keeping the balls in the air, but sometimes The Shift's ambitions to be social history trip it up. The Sixties scenes in Paris have a pre-fabricated feel to them that's compounded by video-stills of political posters from the time, while it's hard to hear a line like "You see, it's all possible now in Mr Attlee's Britain" without flashing on Harry Enfield's Mr Cholmondeley- Warner.

Still, on the basis of The Shift, you'd certainly put Bayley on the "one- to-watch" list. She shows her true mettle as a writer in the scenes involving Izzy (excellent Laura Macaulay), capturing the girl's mixture of hesitancy and hysteria so well that you wonder if the writer hasn't lived out a score of past lives as a teenager.

Booking: 0171-928 6363. To 1 Feb

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