Theatre: And the outlook is unsettled

BAD WEATHER THE PIT BARBICAN, LONDON
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The Independent Culture
BAD WEATHER is the singularly off-putting title of a long, elusive, often inexplicable yet also strangely rewarding new play by Robert Holman which opened last year at Stratford's Other Place, and transfers to The Pit. The impulse to shout "No, I really can't believe a word of this" is checked, again and again, by sequences that suddenly succeed in assenting their own delicately nuanced criterion of credibility. While Steven Pimlott's production may be too evenly paced, it cumulatively hypnotises you with its intent, unhurried dedication to the play's vision and the detailed truthfulness of the performances.

The proceedings begin amid the graffiti and scuzzy corrugated sheeting of a run-down Middlesbrough council estate. Luke, a young yob, has beaten up a man outside a Chinese takeaway, but it's his best friend, Jamie, who takes the rap and is sent down for four years. Jamie's depressed, declassee mother, Kay, once the rich heiress of a rather different estate in France, embarks on a sexual relationship with the one juror who sided with her son. But the idea that we are in for a social-realist piece about deprivation and divided loyalty (will the incarcerated Jamie grass?) is quickly scotched by the arrival of the mother's one-time nanny. Played with a quite mesmerising authority and understated chic by Susan Engel, 69-year-old Agnes takes enigmatic control of the situation, like a cross between a Gallic Mary Poppins and the Duke in Measure for Measure.

There is something oddly Shakespearean about the play's movement from Teesside to the idyll of a sun-kissed, dilapidated French chateau where Agnes sweeps the cast off for a holiday. It reminds you of those shifts into the heightened realms of Arden, Illyria and the wilds of Wales from which people emerge transformed in his comedies. Except that redemption comes at a price, and only ambiguously, in the world Holman creates here, with its repeated pattern of emotional displacement. It's a world in which, bizarrely, mothers such as Kay (who is all pained and frayed refinement in Susan Brown's moving performance) are better at being surrogate parents to other people's children than proper mothers to their own. The imprisoned youth (played with a pent-up, cigarette-crushing intensity by Ryan Pope) is more adept at taking the rap than in taking responsibility for himself. Even the weather, with its freak spring snow showers, seems to be firing just off-target.

What helps to bring these matters into a tentatively truer alignment is a love affair between 69-year-old Agnes and 21-year-old Luke. It sounds like the kind of thing that could only happen in an Iris Murdoch novel. Thanks to Engel and Paul Popplewell's beguilingly fresh and cocky Luke, it is not laughed off the stage here.

I am far from certain that I have grasped the play's tricky emotional logic, but I know that this is a piece that is going to live with me for a long time. Holman's 1990 Royal Court play Rafts and Dreams is, in my view, one of the most underrated dramas of the decade. I hope that Bad Weather has a happier fate.

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