THEATRE / Cold awakening: Paul Taylor on the premiere of Rod Williams' The Life of the World to Come at the Almeida

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The Independent Culture
To do justice to the grim vistas opened up by cryonic suspension - halting 'the dying process' in the terminally ill by putting them on ice until a cure has been found - you'd need a dramatist like Beckett, someone who appreciates that consciousness itself has drawbacks for which they are highly unlikely to find a cure. Written while he was dying, Dennis Potter's Cold Lazarus will, by all accounts, be keenly alive to this, giving the hero's plight a hellish technological twist. His revived brain will be connected against his will to a virtual reality unit, thus forcing him to witness distorted versions of his memories of life in the Thirties and Forties, churned out as entertainment.

Rod Williams' The Life of the World to Come, premiered now at the Almeida, can't afford to dwell on the subjective side of re-animation. Set in a cryogenic rest home in the Bahamas, it tries to combine corporate comedy with intellectual farce as it introduces you to the shady dealings of an outfit, run by a couple of bent Americans, where scientific integrity has long been sacrificed to cynical accountancy. Behind a front of offering immortality and lucrative 'afterlife insurance', the company is being run as a big bucks euthanasia service.

Their idealistic founder has himself been on ice since the mid-Eighties, when he was diagnosed as having leukaemia, and his refrigerated, naked, worked- out body is on display as a symbol of the nobility of the enterprise. The play imagines what would happen if he were the first human to be successfully (if accidentally) revived. Looking more like the male crumpet in a touring version of The Rocky Horror Show than 'a free, radical biochemist', Simon Burke bolts in starkers and is soon waving his unthawed pecker at people, panicking that it is not his.

For a pioneer cryonicist, he seems to take a preternaturally long while to twig to what has happened to him. And when he does, and starts coming on the principled visionary to his jittery colleagues, there's a breathtaking lack of scientific rigour in his proposals. What would be the point of bringing all the other frozen bodies back to life if, as with his leukaemia, cures have not been found for their illnesses? The idea horrifies his associates, but only on financial grounds: because of their corrupt dealings, there isn't the money to carry it through. The founder may have to be chilled out on a less reversible basis.

A play that needs to unfold with the exuberantly remorseless logic of a Ben Jonson comedy sags with too much indulgent slack. Though the dialogue has fun with its inventive jargon ('I'm a closure therapist; you really need a resurrection counsellor'), the drama lacks any true inner dynamic. We are told, for example, that a delegation including the governor of the island and the minister of tourism is imminent, and that on this visit hangs a multi-million dollar development deal. There's lot of potential for frantic cover-up there, so it's a pity, though characteristic, that the situation is left completely undramatised.

There are some nicely turned performances (especially that of Stephen Greif as the sveltely devious American), but Derek Wax's valiant production can't distract you from the aimlessness of the piece, drifting as it does between erratic satire and soggy, awkward interludes with 'heart' between the revived founder and the lovelorn keeper of his flame (Deabhla Molloy). This is not one that's destined for immortality.

Continues at the Almeida, Almeida St, London N1 until 13 August. Booking: 071-359 4404

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