Theatre A Curlew's Cry Northcott Studio, Exeter Halfway to Paradise The Drum, Plymouth

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The Independent Culture
A Curlew's Cry developed out of the playwright Paul McClure's meetings with Sir Peter Pears in 1985, when Pears was 75. The play shows the famous tenor still grieving over the death of his companion Benjamin Britten some 10 years earlier.

The theme is Pears's preoccupation with standards; of the decline of morality, dignity, spirituality. The only thing that endures is the classical beauty of the young male form. A young tenor calls for advice. He is a handsome young man and his admiration of Pears is fulsome; Pears, seeking companionship, flattery and love, is eagerly touched.

Pears's state of mind is illustrated by his ramblings back and forward. His time with Britten has acquired a rosy glow. Only Janet, the housekeeper, remembers his selfishness, leaving the sick Britten while he toured abroad. The visit of the young tenor is the catalyst that releases memories and antagonisms.

This is a sad play, often high-flown, of a great artist in decline. Brian Poyse, in a marathon role, plays Sir Peter with frail dignity. Caroline Swift is sparky and forthright as the housekeeper, and Simon Cox emerges from self-effacing to brash as the young visitor.

Halfway to Paradise is about Devon flotsam in the Britain of 1982. It is set on the pier at Teignmouth, where Billy Fury is giving his final concert and HMS Sheffield is in the harbour, leaving in the morning for the Falklands. The writer, Nick Discombe, contrasts the gentle romance of Fury's songs with the fury of Mrs Thatcher's response to the Argentine invasion. Thatcher's general philosophy has driven Bert, a tramp, to attempt suicide by hanging himself on the pier. In Thatcher's Britain, the rosy dream world of popular song is the only area where these people are secure.

Overall, this is an uneasy mixture of popular culture and political comment. The characters manage to be both shallow and ponderous, defying the considerable talents of Orchard Theatre regulars to bring them to life. The set by Anne Curry, however, is a masterpiece of seaside seediness.

n 'A Curlew's Cry' continues to 2 March (Booking: 01392 493493); 'Halfway to Paradise' continues to 9 March (Booking: 01803 862935), then on tour