Review: THEATRE Grace Note Old Vic, London

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The Independent Culture
It is not Samuel Adamson's fault that the follow-up to his elliptical, well-regarded debut play, Clock and Whistles, arrives on the heels of Sir Peter Hall's fine revival of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a classic once described by the late Vivian Mercier as a play in which "nothing happens twice". Grace Note, unfortunately, turns out to be a play in which little happens, once.

Adamson sets the stage for an old-fashioned, single-set family drama. Daniel is married to Ellie and lives in the comfortable former family home within seemingly easy reach of his twin sister, Jennifer, and half- brother, Jack. Grace, their mother, is now living in self-contained sheltered accommodation but, arriving for a family dinner, ends up staying far longer than anyone planned. Still physically strong, her mind is beginning to go, which arouses various degrees of consternation among her increasingly embittered children, who are forced to make decisions about her future.

The play's metaphor, as suggested in the punning title, is music. Grace, a former cellist who reluctantly realised in her thirties that she would only ever be a teacher, pushed the twins to become musicians but they have disappointed her. The twins are feckless - Daniel has abandoned piano teaching for bar work and Jennifer is an editor who sneers at the mention of music - while Jack is a wideboy with money in restaurants who enters brandishing car keys and a mobile phone, which is production shorthand for "you're not supposed to like this character". If it had been written five years ago, he would have been fondling a filofax.

Like her opera-loving mother, Jennifer divides the world between the dramatic truth of Maria Callas and the tonal beauty and perfection of Joan Sutherland, but it's not just the family that sides with veneer. The play is more about surface than substance and under Dominic Dromgoole's languid direction, few of the cast manage to create any texture. As a result, what revelations there are in this under-plotted, character-driven piece are tiresomely inevitable rather than surprising. It keeps threatening to take off but remains earthbound. Daniel is revealed to be gay, but when he invites his boyfriend to a family party and we're set up for a reworked Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, all that happens are a few spiteful remarks from his siblings. It's one thing to show a family bent on avoiding confrontation. It's another to hint at tensions but leave them undramatised.

Adamson's well-honed dialogue floats images into the atmosphere and strips conversational ideas to their essence but it's so self-consciously oblique, the effect is more enervating than poetic. He is most at home when writing for Grace, who, in the hands of Geraldine McEwan, rightly dominates the play. Her voice switching between a fey purr and a braying bass clarinet, she seizes the lines to create an alarming and touching portrait of a woman whose lucidity and grasp on her life lurches in and out of focus.

Not even McEwan's estimable talent can disguise the fact that Adamson is being overexposed. There is a world of difference between writing for the 100-seat Bush theatre and the 1,100-seat Old Vic. Although Dromgoole tries to fool us that we're in a more intimate space by using a framework set, not only are large parts of this naturalistic-style play frankly inaudible, the writing lacks a visual dimension. The dramatic motor needed for this large stage is distinctly underpowered.

To 28 July (Sun, Mon only). Booking: 0171-928 7616

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