Theatre: Cruise missiles over Camden

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The Independent Culture
"IS THAT it?", asked the elderly lady in the second row from the back. It is, said the fiftysomething member of the north London intelligentsia who happened to be sitting next to her. He smiled patronisingly. But then, he should know; this was, after all, a play about a fiftysomething member of the north London intelligentsia. But wasn't there supposed to be a discussion, asked the old woman. No doubt there'll be one in the bar afterwards, he replied.

Her mistake was understandable. The play had been billed as a debate but, though it trotted out both sides of the argument - on the war in Kosovo, and whether the bombing is a good idea - if there could have been said to have been a debate within this quickie drama, it was a pretty one-sided one.

Collateral Damage, by Tariq Ali, Howard Brenton and Andy de la Tour, may purport to be about the ethics of the present war. Yet aptly, it is set, not in the Balkans, but in the dining room of a sub-Hampstead couple of ageing socialists who tussle with the issues as a metaphor for the state of their marriage. For in the end it is not really a play about Kosovo but about the split among chic metropolitan lefties in their attitude to New Labour.

It starts promisingly, interweaving an exchange of views on the bombing with worries about cooking the asparagus and acid remarks about the guests whose arrival grows increasingly imminent. But the arguments are formulaic and are swapped like one-liners between an opinionated taxi-driver and his distracted passenger. The play comes alive only when the statements about international policy become vehicles for the discharge of domestic drama - and yet this very emotion disables any intellectual balance in the argument. It descends into the agit-prop caricature of the Brenton and Ali of the Sixties and Seventies. The man is revealed as a macho Blairite, crashing salt cellars around the table in demonstration of his armchair battle plan for taking Belgrade. The woman becomes the face of sensitive humanity, paralysed by contradictions.

The cast - Jeremy Clyde as the baddie and Susan Wooldridge as the goodie - did their best with this creaky script, though their performances reflected the fact that it was only nine days since, as the programme boasts, the unsolicited manuscript was delivered to the director of the Tricycle. But in the end, the actors were faced with the great paradox of didactic theatre: when it descends into cartoon, it ends up doing no more than preach to the converted, and when it stumbles into the complexity of human passion, its message gets confused rather than clarified.

There was no debate afterwards in the bar. For all the talk about living with contradictions, the after-show conversations were charged with self-congratulatory certainty at the success of this assault on bourgeois reality. It seemed curiously old-fashioned. Wars are more complicated today than they were in the Sixties. Theatre should be, too.

Paul Vallely

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