Start making sense : theatre

Criminals in Love Contact, Manchester
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"Criminals don't make history, only news," says a character in Criminals in Love. Perhaps not, but they make plenty of novels, films and plays - so many in fact that they must now come tooled-up with ironic quotation marks. So it is here. That thetheorist, William (Tim Preece), is a tramp who turns out to be a sage, might give you just some idea what a knowing tale of metamorphosis George F Walker's 1984 play is. But it is also a romance. Junior and Gail could be the boy and girl fleeing forces of darkness in any number of children's stories, except that when we meet them Junior's head is deep under Gail's sweater. They are, as played by newcomers George Sida andEve Steele, an attractively sparky pair of naifs who become tied into an obscure plot involving theft and bombs, courtesy of Junior's comically inept but still convincingly vicious father Henry (Ian Mercer). The plot is supposedly masterminded by Henry's brother, Richie, but since he never appears, it is driven by his black wife, Wineva (Ellen Thomas), who eventually reveals herself as an incendiary revolutionary of the class of '68.

In its incongruities and its ellipses, the play smacks of the satiric absurdism of that era. There is that pivotal absentee and the continual references to "it", "the hanging shadow", and "the skiing class", a mysterious force governing everything for its own inscrutable purpose. It is William, of course, who underlines the piece's status as a tragicomic parable of freedom and determination.

Like Wineva, his character is both too sportively imagined and too schematically calculated. That unevenness extends to the production as a whole:playing on a wide, narrow strip across the front of the stage is presumably intended to deny the traditionaldepth of realism. Sure enough, it is like watching clothes on a line.

To make matters worse, for the play's UK premiere the setting has crossed the Atlantic. Urban wastelands may be interchangeable, but in these accents what may be sharp dialogue seems studied and flat. With Wineva's character the transposition is certainly stretched too far. There is surely something culturally specific about the extremes of North America that makes society as non sequitur a particularly convincing metaphor, or indeed not a metaphor at all.

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