THEATRE / Breaking up proves harder to do

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ONE FACTOR in David Mamet's The Cryptogram over which there can be no dispute is that its dominant character is a 10-year-old boy.

It is nothing new for a child to be propelled into a central role by special narrative circumstances. But that is not the case here. The circumstances are commonplace. John is sitting up late with his mother and a family friend the night before going on a camping trip with his father. News arrives that the father has walked out on the family; and the adults set about piecing the background events together, to John's mounting distress. There is nothing he can do about it. In life he is helplessly dependent. But on the stage he asserts the status of a leading actor. If that sounds like a recipe for brattish self- indulgence, I can only refer you to the stunning performance of Danny Worters, who decisively initiates every turning-point in the action, and radiates authority from his opening show of defiance (while swinging on the bannisters) to his unsmiling curtain call.

What, then, is Mamet's cryptogram? Most obviously it is the puzzle of the absent father, who remains a cypher even after his past treacheries have come to light. We learn less about him than about the anxiously uncaring mother and the devoted but untrustworthy friend, Del, as they compare notes, follow up false leads, and respond to the boy's appeals by trying to dose him with medicine and send him to bed - never offering to take him by the hand up Bob Crowley's ominously darkened staircase. Maybe it was Lindsay Duncan, as the mother, fretful as a snapping violin string, who broke up the marriage. Maybe she had a rival in the homosexual Del - a passive role in which Eddie Izzard takes an unimaginable leap from stand-up comedy to repressed guilt and self-loathing. But all speculation ends

in the dark.

Again, the title may refer to John's private world. He is afraid of going to sleep, because of what he hears and sees in his dreams. Maybe these relate to the on-coming family disaster; but as he does not describe them, the audience is again in the dark. What we see is a child traumatised by fantasy, and two adults traumatised by off-stage events, in which their separate areas of ignorance overlap in a shared situation. In so far as there is a climax, it comes when John oversteps the mark once too often and the mother attacks him as a proxy for the father. He is, after all, just another male.

Yet another question is hiding inside the title. Was Mamet also in the dark when he wrote this play; or is he deliberately withholding material that is too painful to disclose? Is he taking us as far as he can, or only as far as he thinks fit? Given its correspondence to Mamet's own early life and the fact that he began the play in the 1970s (not to mention Danny Worters' resemblance to a miniature Mamet), I would go for the second answer. This would do something to explain the numbingly cautious impression it makes in Gregory Mosher's production. In spite of a specific 1959 Chicago setting, there is no trace of any surrounding world. The dialogue is frustratingly evasive: prolonged interrogations meet a stone wall; dislocated syntax functions as a rhetorical mask for the equivocating author instead of reflecting the speaker's thought processes.

Works such as Glengarry Glen Ross or Oleanna immediately declare their vitality and business in the world. You do not have to elucidate these by relating them to the motif of the betrayed child and other 'deep structures' in the Mamet oeuvre. With The Cryptogram that is the only way in. It is not a free-standing work; nor do its obsessions translate into narrative energy. In checking the dictionary definition of 'cryptogram' I spotted the word 'cryptogam', meaning a plant which, however deep its roots, puts forth no flowers. That might have been an apter title.

It could also fit the non- achieving hero of Graham White's imprudently named Bleat, who makes a hash of his life in the Met, only to return to Devon and make a terminal hash of things on the family farm. Someone has a dream about leaving a lamb to die; but it is not an image that does much for Martin Hancock's moody, inarticulate Martin, whose power to attract local girls surpasses any conundrum set by Mamet. At which point, I must dig my heels in and recommend this 'pastoral tragedy' as one of the most compelling pieces of working-class naturalism since the theatre's rediscovery of D H Lawrence. Martin may belong nowhere; but the others, leading their violently active lives around him in the family barn, create a claustrophobic environment that is at once typical and wholly individual. They include a girl labourer, desperate to escape to London; Martin's oafishly dominant brother who runs the place; and a father who has retired into taxidermy and treats his sons as if they were still growing boys.

Emma Owen-Smith, Philip Kingston and Raymond Adamson get marvellously under the skin of these three characters. What they present is simultaneously a thriving little business, a good-natured family and a madhouse. At one moment they lash out with fists, sadistic jeering or ritualised punishment; at the next, it is all forgotten as a harmless bit of fun, except that it has moved Martin one step nearer to his rendezvous with the shot-gun. Cathryn Horn's production fuses a succession of tiny scenes, including flashbacks and replays, into a clear expressive line. It will be a sad waste if, as announced, this is her company's final show.

Two popular old war-horses have resumed the fray, both in pretty good shape. Only some despairing Yiddish imprecation could properly sum up the blank support performances in Sammy Dallas Bayes' revival of Fiddler on the Roof, but Jerome Robbins' choreography remains electrifying; and Topol, as Tevye the thinking milkman, defeats all superlatives. After 27 years in the role, he continues to grow; his performance is a living memorial to the comic genius of a tragic people. I don't understand how he, or the relentless piece itself, can ever have been considered sentimental.

From its opening sound- montage of school life to the concluding tableau spotlighting the doomed couple and a bust of Aeschylus, Philip Franks' revival of Rattigan's The Browning Version sustains the merciless focus of its classical model. The casting (Christopher Godwin, Diana Hardcastle) is spectacularly good. Clive Merrison's Crocker-Harris, the professionally and maritally defeated classics teacher, is more than good. He begins as a withered pedagogue, held bolt upright by stoical pride and English reserve, and then reaches his

moment of anguished self- recognition with a cry that echoes back to the Agamemnon. No one has previously sounded the play to this depth.

'The Cryptogram': Ambassadors, 071-836 1171. 'Bleat': Finborough, 071-373 3842. 'Fiddler on the Roof': Palladium, 071-494 5020. 'The Browning Version': Greenwich, 081-858 7755.

(Photograph omitted)