Theatre: CROSSING THE EQUATOR

Bush, London
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The Independent Culture
Jack Briers wants - no, needs - to believe that he kept the soft drinks industry going right through the War. And, given considerably less than half a chance, he'll bore you to death with the details. Excellently conveyed in Paul Copley's fine performance, Jack's nervy, pedantic bravado would fool nobody, though. He wears his complex about never having worn uniform like, well, a uniform. Even on board the ship which in the winter of 1949 is bearing him, his newish wife and her smart-ass teenage daughter (Sarah Howe) on an assisted passage to a new life in Australia. "No bomb damage, no rationing, blue skies. People with no complaints don't go searching for scapegoats." Besides, for an Australian audience, he'll be able to swap tales of his heroics in the soft drinks industry for stirring apocryphal yarns about fighting in the second battle of El Alamein with Monty.

In her last play, Backstroke in a Crowded Pool, Jane Coles found a spry, unpretentious metaphor for overcrowded, multicultural Britain in a municipal swimming pool in Hounslow. Set on a P&O liner bound for Sydney, Crossing the Equator demonstrates once again her talent for getting symbolic mileage out of a sharply observed, highly specific environment and for using down- to-earth, characterful comedy as the launchpad for more metaphysical musings. With its passengers afloat between two lives and awkwardly caught between a sense of emigration as a form of rebirth and as a kind of death, the ship is a zone of soul-searching suspended animation as well as the vessel which will carry these emigrants through the rite of passage of crossing from one hemisphere to the next.

"We've left our old selves back on the quay," claims Jack. But, if that's the case, why are he and his wife (Tessa Peake-Jones) and the lower middle- class Hackney couple they've palled up with (Paul Ritter, Sophie Stanton) so needlessly paranoid about being spied on by Philip Glenister's handsome, ever-helpful cabin steward? That character's enigmatic sexuality and general inscrutability provides the others with the handy pretext of working off, in the shape of collective homophobic prejudice, some self-recriminatory anxieties.

The mythological stuff about the potential wrath of Neptune with his satanically corrupted cross of a trident feels a bit dragged in, courtesy of the conveniently bookish steward. And the storm which erupts over the crossing-the-equator festivities seems a bit anti-climactic after the apocalyptic promise of the first half.

But in imparting the feel of characters in transition at a time when Britain's world role was in transition (the English passengers are spat on in Aden because they come from Blighty), the piece is highly successful. Liberally irrigated with the music of the period (Glen Miller et al), John Dove's attractive, excellently acted production sweeps you up into this peculiar, watery no man's land, somewhere between austerity-ridden post-war Britain and a place which pretends to be England but is just another foreign country.

n Box-office: 0181-743 3388

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