Theatre: Caged themes

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THE ROYAL Exchange's new studio space is mainly committed to new writing with four premieres being presented by the Company in its first six months, and an evident policy of strong support in casting and technical resources.

Nicola Baldwin's The Rib Cage begins with a public theme. A Yorkshire town has just acquired a new retail centre - all shining glass and more themes then Western literature. Its developer is Don Rossington, traditional owner of a local fireworks factory, now busy re-inventing himself. More easily and urgently part of the zip-a-dee-doo-dah zeitgeist is Carla Potts, local ladette making it very good as a presenter intent on cutting a swathe of "scorched earth in local radioland". Close by, but an economy away, is the Turner family cafe, held together by Rosie, long abandoned by her husband and by her elder son, and now by her customers flocking to "retail heaven".

The public topic becomes entwined with personal and family drama with the return of the prodigal son Russell, gaunt and edgy in Chris Gascoyne's strong portrayal, redolent of squats and syringes and biliously eloquent about "the comatose seam of humanity" interred under the altars of goods and services. Somehow Carla inveigles Russell into being the centrepiece of her seven-day "Wake Up North" festival at the Merridale: he will sleep through it all in a glass coffin; a sleeping prince, the king under the mountain, and eventual emblem of the town's rebirth.

To begin with, Nicola Baldwin seems bent on satire but she complicates the issue by making Carla's defence of modernity and rejection of the past very acute, and showing why she is personally so intent on the future. At first her collision - re-collision as we quickly realise - with Russell looks interestingly combustible, but as they collapse towards each other, the play falters accordingly, stumbling, eyes averted, towards a happy ending.

The Rib Cage is nearly as deliberately themed and imaged as the Merridale, and there are too many "significant" soliloquies. But the writing is very eloquent, and in less self-conscious passages, such as Rosie's account of her husband's leaving and the account of a Berlin traffic-accident by the Revelation-crazed drunk Tolson (good Alan Williams), it has a very vivid edge.

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