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Theatre :As edifying as a plate of battered cod

Dead Fish Riverside Studios Gordon Steel's Dead Fish is the sort of drama that leaves you feeling guilty about not being able to like it more, and resentful at it for having that effect. True, I felt a bit cornered. For a start, the play was shortlisted (though not by me) for the Independent Theatre Award a few years ago. Then again, the subject matter (salt-of-the-earth Middlesbrough family bereaved when shipyard welder father has stroke and dies of industry-related cancer) virtually blackmails you into banishing negative thoughts.

Nevertheless, I sensed I wasn't going to be equal to the task of liking the piece right from the start when the youngest son Gavin (Martin Garner) moved from the little tableau of mourners to the front of the stage. After starting with surprise at finding himself face to face with an audience, he fixed us with a voracious smile and launched into a stand-up routine about mothers. When he got to the bit about his father dying, his face assumed a mask of grotesquely exaggerated grief and his eyes raked thepunters as if checking that we were all suitably moved. It seemed a fair sign that Dead Fish was going to belong to what I call the "laugh a little, cry a little, gag a little school".

This is a shame because, in Steel's production for Hull Truck, there are a few admirable scenes and stretches of excellent acting. Colin MacLachlan as Gil, the father, powerfully embodies the pain of a man gored on the horns of a dilemma: his livelihood and sense of masculinity depend on an industry he knows is killing him and which is itself dying. He's a man whose self-esteem is horribly threatened when the older son, Ray (Daniel Casey), who's under intense emotional pressure to take a job in the yardand to be "set up for life", rounds on his father and tells him: "I don't want to be like you, I don't want to be that small." Sweeping aside any hint of melodrama, MacLachlan makes Gil totter from bullying patriarch to juddering stroke victim - an authentically harrowing spectacle.

There are other good moments. Although Martin Garner's Gavin strikes you as more likely to become Middlesbrough's answer to Norman Wisdom than a professional footballer, MacLachlan beautifully handles the scene in which, awed by his son's talent, he bri s kly refuses to let him see it. And Emma Shaw is delightful as the mother in the scene in which the family purchases a fitted carpet and she and her husband bounce on it, smiling with wary pleasure and pride.

What ruins the piece for me is the playwriting-by-numbers compartmentalisation of effects. There's a crude slapstick scene in which the two sons, bickering and grimacing at the sordidness of it, haul their wheelchair-ridden father on to a commode and then clean him up afterwards. Later, there's an episode in which the father forces out a request for his wife to play with him - and he isn't referring to Ludo. This overture and her initial disgusted reluctance is designed to provoke a stunner silence as much as the commode business is calculated to arouse uproarous laughter. Even when there are different effects within the same scene, you still get the sense not of a rich, tragicomic weave but of button-pressing contrivance. Surely a

young man who has wiped his father's bottom would not evince cartoon-squeamishness, as Gavin does, at being handed his father's ashes. It's that kind of thing that makes Dead Fish hard to stomach.

n `Dead Fish', Riverside Studios, London W11 (081-741 2251)