THEATRE / Absent friends: Jeffrey Wainwright reviews Possession at the Octagon, Bolton (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Culture

TWO-and three-handers always require double density characters to make up for the lack of dramatis personae. All three characters in Paul Abbott's new play, directed by Lawrence Till, are on stage within five minutes and, while there is much to learn about them, it is the absent characters, whose appearance always seems imminent, who are arguably the most important.

The scene is a large, cheerfully shambolic house in the Cheshire countryside. Children's paintings cover the kitchen pine and improving toys are scattered about the floor. None of the children actually live here, however, but apparently treat it as open house at the benign invitation of its sole occupant, Liz, an earth mother who, somewhat against type, likes hard liquor, loud music and Sainsbury's on Sundays.

She does not seem to be the kind of woman who needs help with anything, but the action opens with her employing a young couple, Lorraine and John, as housekeeper and gardener. Blanched by the inner city, they are both uncomfortable in their new rosy surroundings.

What follows is a series of manoeuvres and revelations which shift the balances of power back and forth among the three of them. Liz is the employer with the authoritative manner of the wholewheat bourgeois, but when we see that it is she who is spilling juice and paint on the floor before mopping it up we realise that this kitchen may be more Aaggh than Aga. The children, like the grown-up son in America, are not only offstage, they do not exist.

This knowledge becomes part of the leverage Lorraine and John begin to exert. Lorraine's head is screwed on very tight, and she leads the way with some financial finagling. John's position is more ambivalent for he sees both a rip-off opportunity and, in his obsessive gardening, a haven from his former life. But Liz has knowledge of her own with which to fight. She knows about this past life, John's drug addiction and why Lorraine's child is in care. To have a real child to clean up after is her goal. So each character seeks to possess or dispossess.

As his earlier play, Binnin' It, showed, the depiction of street level deranged desperation seems to be Abbott's forte. Possession is intermittently interesting in its portrayal of its characters' maimed minds, but is never taut enough in its action to excite. Sharon Muircroft as Lorraine and Tom Higgins as John both convince as young people already skinned nearly raw but Mary Cunningham has much more trouble with the less plausible Liz. We know all about her very early on and her salty apothegms about the world in general have the ring of the author's one- liners rather than hers. The action slows and then lurches forward in bouts of frenzied activity, and the process of revelation, mostly by monologue, is clumsily executed. It all becomes too explicit with the characters laid out with the supposed clarity of a social worker's file. What is missing is the mystery of subtext, Pinter's touch for the barely articulated.

To 30 Oct (0204-20661).