An over-sentimental journey

<i>The Captain's Tiger</i> | Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
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The Independent Culture

"Of all the would-be writers in the world, I had to end up with him!" The line may recall Casablanca, but a more apposite movie would be Back To The Future. The speaker is Betty, the walking, talking muse of the nameless 20-year-old South African Author, who is writing a novel on a cargo ship in 1952 in his time off from his job as the captain's tiger, or batman.

"Of all the would-be writers in the world, I had to end up with him!" The line may recall Casablanca, but a more apposite movie would be Back To The Future. The speaker is Betty, the walking, talking muse of the nameless 20-year-old South African Author, who is writing a novel on a cargo ship in 1952 in his time off from his job as the captain's tiger, or batman.

Betty is also the Author's mother when young, and the heroine of his awful, Catherine-Cookson-type novel (on the train to the city, Betty imagines the wheels are saying her name over and over; seeing her reflection, in make-up and a borrowed evening frock, "she found herself blushing with pleasure and surprise").

Sometimes Betty behaves as a muse should, praising and inspiring, but at other times she quarrels and complains, and one night, impatient with the virginal Author's awkwardness, tries to slip between the sheets.

But fantasy incest doesn't take place in Athol Fugard's atypically non-political and sentimental play; nor does anything else, really.

Author reads his manuscript every evening to Donkeyman, a Swahili who is oddly appreciative for one with so little English. Eventually the boy comes to a realisation about himself and jettisons the novel, and the boat sails on.

Auriol Smith, the play's director, is responsible for splitting the Author's part in two, not a good idea. Handing the reminiscent passages to an older actor simply drags out even more this slight material, whose natural home seems a short story, and gives that character nothing to do but display unstinting geniality, rue, and other vomit-inducing qualities toward himself. But, even stuck with such lines as "I'd thrown a lot more than my manuscript overboard", I thought Peter Gale could have soft-pedalled the self-love and sententiousness. So far as Smith's staging of the piece goes, however, I have nothing but praise for what she does with the actors, and what she has brought out of the others. Chad Shepherd as the Donkeyman, Ben Warwick as the young Author, and Leah Fuller as Betty (the last two of whom graduated from drama school only this summer) not only make their characters entirely believable, but endow them with a charm that never verges on ingratiation.

In the case of Ben Warwick, though, suspension of disbelief was a pretty tall order when we were told that he had never been good at playing with girls. If anyone this delectable managed to reach 20 untouched, it must have been despite the efforts of the entire subcontinent.

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