Theatre: Brothers of the Brush Arts Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
"How can you go on strike if you're on the dole?": it certainly sounds a cock-eyed notion, tantamount to popping out for a coffee-break in the middle of a tea-break. But then, as Jimmy Murphy's Brothers of the Brush amply demonstrates, in the black economy of the Dublin decorating trade rum things happen. Set in the basement of an old house in the city, this funny, talented (if slightly over-sold) first play immerses you in a recession-hit, declining culture where there are too many people chasing too few contracts and where not officially employing your workforce helps keep costs down.

There are plays which show how the oppressed, classically and (from the bosses' point of view) conveniently, get side-tracked into victimising each other. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, an early August Wilson work which looks at the exploitation of coloured jazz singers by the white recording industry, is a case in point. By letting you see that Darragh Kelly's slippery, mobile-phone-toting young boss is also up against it, in an economy where contracts have to be priced down to within an inch of their lives, the unsentimental Brothers of the Brush refuses to paint divisions in simple black and white.

Brothers is, indeed, an increasingly ironic way of describing the eponymous quartet or an atomised working class whose unions are now inclined to argue that beggars can't be choosers. When elderly Jack (Vinnie McCabe) loses out to a much younger worker for the foremanship on a big, imminent factory contract, the saturnine malcontent Heno (Phelim Drew) uses it as the excuse to call a strike which will bring in the union and hence the dreaded taxman.

It's less the working conditions (rats, no loo, etc) or the rates of pay that motivate Heno, however, than resentment of the colleague who got the job. Movingly played by Stuart Graham, Lar is presented to us as the feckless, family-neglecting Heno's admirable opposite, the playwright equipping him with perhaps too many sympathetic reasons for taking the dubious option of siding with the boss. For example, he himself had once led a principled strike but the union were a scant help when no firm would subsequently touch him. One of the most charged moments in Lynne Parker's deft, finely acted production epitomises the self-destructiveness inescapable in this world. In a fit of frustration, Lar kicks and breaks a toy he has just bought as a Christmas present. Unable to mend it, he hurls it against the wall with a quite frightening violence.

Until the stronger second half, the specifics of this life, redolent of first-hand knowledge, are piled on in such quantities that the situation is impeded from symbolising something larger than itself. If you've recently had builders in your home, you may even find the experience of watching the early scenes a faintly masochistic one. But the play mounts in power and, at its best, the writing hits several targets at once. Lar evokes more than just the experience of long-term unemployment in the lines: "I watched the whole of the Gulf War, then went out to sign on one day and missed the bleedin' ending!" Such moments give you a brush with genuine talent.

n To 8 June. Booking: 0171-836 3334)

PAUL TAYLOR

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