Aristocrats | Minerva Theatre, Chichester

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The Independent Culture

Three generations ago, the head of the O'Donnell family served on the supreme court of Ireland. His son became a judge on a lower court, and his grandson presided over one lower still. Now the last male O'Donnell is a failed solicitor. "If we had had children," says his brother-in-law, "and they had wanted to be part of the family legal system, the only option open to them would be as criminals."

Three generations ago, the head of the O'Donnell family served on the supreme court of Ireland. His son became a judge on a lower court, and his grandson presided over one lower still. Now the last male O'Donnell is a failed solicitor. "If we had had children," says his brother-in-law, "and they had wanted to be part of the family legal system, the only option open to them would be as criminals."

Brian Friel's Aristocrats (1979) tenderly and bitterly examines the ruined O'Donnell house, a paradigm of a country where self-improvement means failing upward. The last judge, dying upstairs for the two acts, expires, with characteristic malice, on the eve of a daughter's wedding, forcing its postponement. But Claire, the bride-to-be, has not been eager to leave the mansion where her personality and ambition have been suitably crushed for marriage to an elderly grocer.

One sister, Judith, is a slave to Ballybeg Hall, where 17 buckets have to be put out to catch the water whenever it rains. Another, Alice, a surly lush, has married the son of their former maid. Their only brother, Casimir, has come from Hamburg, where (he says) he has a wife and three sons, but he is most at home in the non-existent past. Doubled up and tearful at the sound of his nasty father's voice, he chatters happily to a visiting academic about the grand old days: "Grandfather told Balzac to shut up, and Chopin said..."

The greatest victim among these walking wounded, however, is Alice's husband, Eamon, the local boy who had the most promising career of all and now lives in a tiny basement, has a job he hates, and pines for Judith, who turned him down years ago. Seemingly the most rebellious, with his laborious clowning and self-hating irony, he is really the servant of the O'Donnells. Through him their anger can be funnelled, expressed, and denied.

The scene is set, it appears, for any number of confrontations and revelations. Yet even Sean Holmes's loving production cannot disguise that there are as many holes in Aristocrats as in the O'Donnell roof. A long and desultory first act ends with no suspense or even any frisson of the family's approaching doom.

By the end of the play, very little has happened, none of it psychologically or dramatically surprising - the hall, of course, must be abandoned after the father dies; Old Uncle George, who has been mute for years, suddenly speaks up, and, of course, does so with graceful fluency. Nor is there any pay-off when Eamon poignantly expresses a greater anguish than any of the O'Donnells at the loss of the old house.

In a strong cast, Laine Megaw is outstanding as the gallant, martyred Judith, as is Billy Carter as Casimir, flitting between the remembered horrors of his childhood and his desperate fantasies. That excellent actor Gawn Grainger, however, is wasted in the underwritten, straight-man part of the academic.

Despite its considerable charm, Aristocrats leaves us dispirited with its inability to imagine any role for the Irish but the usual ones of the passive tyrant, the captive, the exile, the drunk and the mad.

To 30 Sept (01243 781 312)

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