Review: Theatre Approaching Zanzibar Southwark Playhouse, London

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The Independent Culture
Approaching Zanzibar, a 1989 play by the prize-winning off-Broadway dramatist Tina Howe, was hailed in the New York Times as "a surrealistic masterpiece". Watching Brennan Street's zestful, excellently cast production at Southwark Playhouse, you can certainly appreciate the droll, resourceful effrontery with which the piece rethinks in theatrical terms the material of a roving road movie. I suspect, however, that on this side of the Atlantic, it's not the wacky verve but the all-too-frequent bouts of phoney uplift that will stick in the minds (and throats) of the audience.

Driving 2,000 miles from New York to New Mexico to visit the wife's dying aunt are the Blossom family (pop, mom and the statutory couple of precocious kids). The play and the production, which kits the parents out in Stars and Stripes shorts and kerchief, seem torn between wanting to accord the Blossoms representative status and desiring us to view them as lovably exceptional.

It's not, after all, every American family that boasts a blocked composer and Juilliard professor (William Dufris) as patriarch; a musical prodigy who has been "touched by God" (Bryan Carney doing a first-rate adult impersonation of the spacey, gauche young boy Turner); and an artist aunt who is renowned for her site-specific work in the desert that marks sacred Indian places with kites or veils or any other material that is vulnerable to nature and so can symbolise the temporariness of man's attempts to celebrate the eternal.

While menopausal mom (Rena Valeh) copes with hot flushes and imaginary crying sounds from the baby she will never now have, and while nine-year- old Pony (Catherine Holman) works herself up into nightmares about meeting the cancer-afflicted aunt, you steel yourself for what swiftly becomes safe to predict will be a spurious and soft-centred confrontation with - and outfacing of - death.

En route, there are moments that make the trek seem, briefly, worthwhile. There's a finely observed scene where the two males go fly-fishing and the seemingly ripe wisdom of dad's coaching manner ("It's all about the fine art of letting go") and his ruminative resignation about the drying- up of his talent ("The trick is to accept and go down graceful") are exposed as a bluff when Turner gets too good too soon and dad's own line snaps. And a zany, expertly mimed sequence throws the tensions of cooped-up family car travel into rollicking relief when, in fantasy, the parents and children swap roles.

But, like so much off-Broadway fare, the play insists on coating the pill of pain in the sickly sugar of false reassurance - on the lines of "Everything is music. All you have to do is listen", a speech which, to my ear, resoundingly disproves its own point. A pessimistic vision is not per se more realistic than a hopeful one, but a piece that's prepared to show an 81-year-old cancer victim bouncing up and down on a bed with the nine-year-old to whom she has just imparted her life-affirming wisdom might be said to be backing out of the Beckett cul-de-sac at an unseemly speed.

I'm loath, though, to knock a work that contains a few all-time-great bad lines like that uttered by the aunt's elderly medic friend in New Mexico: "It's hard enough being a female doctor round here without being a one-legged one." And who are we to disagree with that?

To 30 August. Booking: 0171-620 3494