Give this man a big, big laugh

Burning Issues | Hampstead, London Mother Courage and Her Children | New Ambassadors, London
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The Independent Culture

When someone walks onstage and we discover he is the Duke of Milan, we rarely think, no you're not, you don't look very ducal or Milanese to me. But when someone comes on and we discover he is a publisher, novelist or biographer, other criteria kick in. We may have met one of two of these types ourselves. On the first night of Burning Issues at Hampstead, quite a few of them were sitting in the other seats. Suddenly we join the Plot Police. Everything has to be credible.

When someone walks onstage and we discover he is the Duke of Milan, we rarely think, no you're not, you don't look very ducal or Milanese to me. But when someone comes on and we discover he is a publisher, novelist or biographer, other criteria kick in. We may have met one of two of these types ourselves. On the first night of Burning Issues at Hampstead, quite a few of them were sitting in the other seats. Suddenly we join the Plot Police. Everything has to be credible.

Ron Hutchinson's best-known play was his tough, emotive Rat in the Skull (1984), about police interrogation of terrorists in Northern Ireland. His new play, Burning Issues, is a good deal softer. Some publishers have bought the private journals of one of their leading authors, announced that they are going to publish them without even taking a casual glance at the contents, and now discover on reading these journals that they are full of offensive racist terms. Will they have to publish them or could they just burn them?

Our immediate reaction isn't "yes" or "no", but "you idiots". One of the publishers then discusses the cock-up with his boss, a number-crunching American who thinks that Seamus Heaney is called "Seaney". Their solution is to ring up the author's biographer, an academic living in the States, and order him to catch the next available flight. The biographer is told to go and confront the novelist. This is another worrying move: why would publishers solve a contractual problem with one author by sending along another?

It emerges that there are three literary works at stake: a new novel, the journals and the letters. Although the novelist, who is called Mallowan, is tipped for a Nobel prize, Hutchinson's interest in the novel itself is marginal. It is never very clear why this novelist keeps these dreary journals or why he would want to sabotage his own reputation by having them published. That leaves the letters. Mallowan has received fan letters from (among others) Samuel Beckett and Tom Wolfe. It's quite a challenge to imagine a contemporary novelist who might appeal equally to the master of bleakness and the cheerleader of New Journalism.

Burning Issues is best seen as a comedy of embarrassment. But when it turns into an ethical debate it enters a knotty area, which, if we were to make any useful progress, would require a ruthless moderator. The topics swing from whether it's OK to publish racist sentiments to the weaselly motives of biographers. As the curmudgeonly novelist, Kenneth Colley closes the first act with a wonderful tirade against his biographer. When the argument turns into whether you would burn the only copy of Mein Kampf - just supposing there was only one copy and it was in your hands - we are back in the debating society.

Despite all this, and a couple of fairly arbitrary deaths, Burning Issues remains an entertaining evening. There are plenty of funny lines, which Denis Lawson directs with brio. The main pleasure is John Gordon-Sinclair's performance as the publisher who bought the journals. Gordon-Sinclair is a natural light comedian. It's a combination of taking his time and maintaining a panicky tension while he does so. He adopts an air of spirited defensiveness, and uses a lovely delaying tactic, as if allowing himself an extra second to run that last remark through his head to see if it makes any more sense than it did the first time he heard it. Gordon-Sinclair has a highly distinctive persona, and someone should write him a nice big comic lead.

The latest Mother Courage and Her Children has many familiar names from the alternative mainstream of British theatre in it. The director Nancy Meckler and her company Shared Experience have joined forces with some Theatre de Complicite regulars and playwright Lee Hall, who adapted Brecht's Mr Puntila for the Right Size. The moon-faced Marcello Magni plays the Cook. The seraphic Hayley Carmichael takes on another mute role (after playing Iphigenia in the National's Oresteia). And, best-known of all, Kathryn Hunter, whom I last saw tackling King Lear at Leceister, plays Mother Courage herself. Her diminutive size seems to lend her an added grandeur, as if her authority must stem solely from the force of her personality.

Angela Davies's design uses sheets, scaffolding and an exposed brick wall behind. Its debt is clearly to Joan Littlewood and O What A Lovely War!. The makeshift staging looks ideal for a touring show, but pushes its ramshackle charm in a West End theatre. If Mother Courage is a didactic piece, then this production teaches us that you should never appear on stage when Hayley Carmichael is standing next to you and saying nothing. Not even if you are a child or an animal. Lee Hall's translation starts off as if it's going to be good obvious fun (the opening verse tells us "the spring has sprung") but the jokes thin out, while the obviousness remains undimmed. Hall catches the black humour ("all the general wanted was to be remembered by one good massacre") and the healthy cynicism about war and profit. But this mix of vaudeville, cabaret and satire sits in a dramatic no-man's land: neither particularly funny, nor particularly acute, nor particularly sad. Just a bit slow.

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