Theatre: Best to keep mum with the dead

Mum King's Head theatre London

SHIRLEY VALENTINE jabbered away to her compliant confidante, the kitchen wall. Alison, the heroine of Mum, a new play by the celebrated comedian, Ronnie Barker, natters non-stop to her dead mother. In one sense, she's keeping mum, but, by God, she isn't in the other. A lonely cleaner in her mid-thirties, thought of as "just another attachment to the Hoover", she yaks on for the company of her own voice. Which introduces the perennial problem of how you present dreary, limited lives without producing limited and dreary art. Let's just put it this way: after seeing Mum, you don't feel that Beckett or Alan Bennett need look over-anxiously to their laurels.

Barker has been open about writing the piece as a vehicle for his daughter, Charlotte, whose career has apparently hit a sticky patch. This news is sad because I've seen Ms Barker give some impressive performances. Appealingly pudgy like her father, to whom she bears a strong resemblance, she comes over as one of nature's Sonyas (in Uncle Vanya) - plucky, plain, lovelorn, and stoical. But I've also witnessed her in quite chilling form as Mary, that adolescent Iago in gingham in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. These plays, saw her rising to the material: in Mum, I'm afraid, it's a question of her rising above it, a feat she achieves briefly in the second half.

Alison is on stage the whole time, with just two interruptions from ghostly visitants (clumsily handled both in the writing and in Dan Crawford's production). First, she's confronted by the drunken, feckless father (David Sterne) she loathed, who reveals he was forced into a bleak, loveless marriage by her mother's pregnancy. Then, efficiently piling on the pain, in pops young soldier Bob (David Maybrick), the love of her life who was killed before they could marry. After some initial memory problems, this revenant is soon obliterating Alison's precious belief that she was once special to someone with a punishingly detailed recall of his other girlfriends. "Why did you have to tell me this?" she strickenly asks. For no other reason than that Bob is a crude contrivance for upping the anguish.

At the start, I thought this was going to be the sort of play where Mary would turn out to have murdered her beloved mother-cum-obsessive sounding board. Then I began to hope the mother would suddenly materialise in her chair and cordially throttle Alison for making the afterlife purgatory with all that banal prattling. The lack of humour in this chatter is, given the author, the most mystifying aspect of the evening. You'll get some idea of the excitement-level when I disclose that the first half ends with Alison about to make some crucial revelation to her mother and then breaking off because she's got to race to the library to return some books on which she'd otherwise be fined. It sends you out for your interval drink scarcely able to speak with the tension.

There are weird patches in the script, too, where you get the sense that it's the author talking rather than the character. Anti-smoking fascism comes in for quite a bashing, with Alison proferring the view that the more democracy we have, the less freedom we enjoy. She also launches into a riff about the tyranny of silence in public libraries. Silence? Public libraries? My local is a mecca for mobile-phone addicts. Oddly dated, "Mum" is not the word.

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