Theatre An Experienced Woman Gives Advice Royal Exchange, Manchester

'It's strange that a play about a childless 39-year-old woman, in an affair with a former pupil, makes no mention of biological clocks or baby substitutes. Fertility, it seems, is not a feminist issue'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"And here's to you, Mrs Robinson/ Heaven holds a place..." Matthew Lloyd's production of the new Iain Heggie play at the Royal Exchange does not go in for pertly apt pop music, but if it did, that Simon and Garfunkel song would be a prime candidate for inclusion. Set on two Sunday mornings in the communal garden of a block of flats in Glasgow, An Experienced Woman Gives Advice focuses on Bella (Siobhan Redmond), a 39-year-old teacher who is three years into a relationship with Kenny (excellent David Tennant). He is a former pupil, roughly half her age, and is coming to the end of a computer course that could secure him a job in London.

Their alliance is not without its tensions and insecurities, but it suits Kenny to play the "charming, fallible boy" and it suits Bella to pass off her desire for him as just so much professional solicitude. She constantly refers to "what he needs at this stage of his development". The precarious balance between innocence and experience is rudely upset, however, when their world is suddenly invaded by two young strangers, Nancy (Jenny McCrindle) and Irving (Alastair Galbraith), who are super keen on losing their virginity and who regale Bella with conflicting accounts of what happened the night before with Kenny in the nearby flat he is minding for a friend.

For fans of Heggie (like myself), who have happy memories of the headlong flair and virtuosic foul language in A Wholly Healthy Glasgow, American Bagpipes and The Sex Comedies, I'm afraid there's no getting round the fact that An Experienced Woman is a big disappointment. The dialogue occasionally ripples with the kind of quirky energy we associate with this dramatist. "Come here, let me just fuck you," entreats the desperate Irving, as if he were offering Bella some minor service like removing a hair from her overall. "If I die of pneumonia, Bella," warns Nancy, "you won't have seen the last of me - because my parents are religious," that last detail lending a fresh, oddball lease of life to a standard-issue joke.

But the semi-farcical aspects of the play - the hiding in garden sheds, the whirligig of people asking Bella's advice while giving her unwittingly callous information about Kenny - manage to be both sluggish and under- motivated. The strangers meet Bella by coming down into the garden where she is tending her plants. But after a night of heavy drinking, surely only very odd people would be anxious for an early-morning sunbathe, and it's equally hard to believe that Kenny would leave the field open for them.

The play's insights into Bella's situation are conveyed heavy-handedly and aren't as acute as they might be. It's strange, for example, that a play about a childless 39-year-old woman, in an affair with a former pupil, makes no mention of things like biological clocks or baby substitutes. Fertility, it seems, is not a feminist issue. Through mechanical use of an ageing-adventurer former boyfriend (Alexander Morton), the play propels Bella into an eventual drastic isolation that Lloyd's well-acted production cannot prevent seeming rushed and contrived. If an experienced playwright were to give advice, he or she would tell Heggie to cut An Experienced Woman and speed up what's left.

n To 16 Dec. Booking: 0161-833 9833

Comments