Royal Exchange, Manchester
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The Independent Culture
Not so long ago, the reaction to the idea of the RSC pitching camp in Manchester would have been "Who needs it?" The Royal Exchange was - as it should be - a company whose production values, stars and innovation were on a par with the national companies. But sitting in the half-empty theatre last Friday night waiting for a laugh, a spark, anything from Beth Henley's Mississippi comedy Crimes of the Heart, it was hard not to offer the heretical prayer, "Mr Noble, come quick".

In truth, Gregory Hersov's excellent work with American plays has been the theatre's only discernible, long-term project in these latter years of decline. But his heart does not seem to be in this meandering portrayal of three sisters - the regulation frump, the failed wannabee and the flake - as they squabble and make-up through a bad day. Another bad day, since this is Southern family drama, like when Daddy ran off, Old Grandaddy got sick and Mommy hanged herself along with the cat (Southern Gothic drama). So when Babe shoots her husband, there's no call for the bourbon till the second act.

Such fascination as this written-by-numbers piece might attain would presumably come through atmosphere and timing, which might elevate the unremarkable dialogue. Neither is present here. If a huge icebox and crickets could persuade us we were in Mississippi, some of these accents would soon disabuse us. As Babe, Robin Weaver does achieve an occasional wan wackiness, and Jonathan Weir as her improbable lawyer, shooting forth both arms excitably as though skewering some legal point to the wall, provides a diverting cameo before his character peters out.

Along with the tricksy, naive sensationalism of the last show here, Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains, Crimes of the Heart is presumably meant to provide a bit of updated North American get-up-and-go for this jaded theatre. Well, audiences are certainly getting up and going, for the Exchange has simply lost its way. It has failed to develop a second stage; its programming yaws hither and thither; its most talented newcomers depart for good; it runs a major new play competition and wants fewer of the plays it finds, and its community involvement is derisory. There is no buzz, no brightness, no expectancy about the building. Even the ushers seem to wonder why you've bothered and, increasingly, so do I.

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