Theatre Baby Jean BAC, London

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The Independent Culture
A mother sits upstairs packing a suitcase for her sleeping daughter, Baby Jean, but in Dermot Bolger's latest play, billed as tackling the abortion issue in Ireland, it quickly becomes clear that Baby Jean is not the baby in the case, but the teenage mother to be. Early the next morning, Jean will be illegally flown to London for an abortion. If the police get wind of it, they can prevent her from boarding the plane.

Meanwhile downstairs, Jean's ineffectual father Paul (Christopher Dunne) vainly attempts to get rid of an unwanted visitor, Kevin, family neighbour, colleague and friend since adolescence. It transpires that Kevin (John Gunnery) is also the villain of the piece. He raped Jean at his own daughter's birthday party, and is now here to prevent the abortion. Paul hasn't got the strength of character to expel him from his living room, and he cannot go to the police for obvious reasons.

After the insight and skill of Bolger's previous plays, In High Germany and The Lament of Arthur Cleary, Baby Jean is a disappointment. The onstage drama resides in the question as to which of the two men will phone the police first, and this question is laboriously strung out throughout the play. The real dramatic action lies in the past - not just the night of the rape, but in the relationship of the two families over the years. Revelation follows revelation, but you long for a flashback to get you out of that dingy sitting room and away from all the talk.

And despite all the shouting and protestation of the two men, Jean never appears to give her version of the story. It may be true that the play was considered too controversial to be staged in Ireland but over here it just seems to have missed its own point entirely. There are important issues to be raised, not least the paternalism of the law that takes upon itself the choices that properly belong with the women involved. The play reproduces this conundrum, and at the considerable cost of the drama.

Jean's mother Anna (Bernadette Short) also has an unenviable role, reduced for almost all of the play to a meandering monologue while having to make the packing of a suitcase last for an entire evening. Dialogue is not Bolger's strongest card (he is perhaps more a novelist than a playwright) and here the shortfalls of the interaction between characters is artificially compensated for by melodramatic action: fights, swearing, even a tying- up and blindfolding. But whatever the failings of the play, Jim O'Hanlon's inept production is also substantially to blame for a dire evening. The acting, though impassioned, is undisciplined and hollow; the lighting is ugly; and the set is a case of unimaginative literalism at its worst.

n To 4 April. Booking: 0171-223 2223