Macaulay comes of age

The former child star of Home Alone is back - this time lighting up the stage in Richard Nelson's bittersweet play Madame Melville
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The Independent Culture

You have to hand it to Macaulay Culkin. The question, though, is what object you should hand him. From the publicity for Madame Melville, the beautiful new play by Richard Nelson in which he now stars, you might have thought you could get away with slipping him the theatrical equivalent of one of Esther Rantzen's Hearts of Gold awards for the special category of post-traumatic stress acting.

You have to hand it to Macaulay Culkin. The question, though, is what object you should hand him. From the publicity for Madame Melville, the beautiful new play by Richard Nelson in which he now stars, you might have thought you could get away with slipping him the theatrical equivalent of one of Esther Rantzen's Hearts of Gold awards for the special category of post-traumatic stress acting.

The former child mega-wonder of movie hits like Home Alone, Culkin has famously been through the mill, losing career and wife and breaking off relations with his toxic-sounding father. That he can stand up on a stage, let alone illuminate it, is a moral achievement of some note. But in Nelson's exquisite production of this bittersweet sad-funny play, Culkin (now 20) gives a performance that is deeply touching, unforced and, in just the right manner, tension-inducing.

Cynics will say that the part is so tailored to his offstage qualities that if hadn't already existed, Nelson would have had to invent him. A pale, tow-haired figure who looks to be 13 going on posthumous, he plays a shy, charming, emotionally needy 15- year-old who winds up having a sexual affair with his ravishing thirtysomething teacher at the American School in 60s Paris - before, that is, his repressive father catches him in a kiss and literally manhandles him away.

In the earlier scenes of this 90-minute piece, Nelson, as both writer and director, cleverly plays on our sense that the project amounts to exploitation of Culkin. But as in the story dramatised here, where the uneven relationship is initially exploitative of the boy in hidden ways, this worry gradually dissolves in a larger, more releasing emotion.

I would guess that Culkin is a highly intelligent guy (he has certainly started to pick good material) and though, when he has to speak directly to the audience, he tends to confine his attentions to the first few rows of the stalls, his sweet, unformed Peter Pan-meets-James Dean presence brings out both the cradle-snatcher and the protective social worker in an audience - an ideal combination of impulses for this material.

The play is like a funny, poetic cross between a Truffaut movie and a short story by the wonderful Mavis Gallant, a writer I suspect may have had a direct influence on this piece. As the seductive title character, the French actress Irÿne Jacob is a heart-stopping reincarnation of the kind of 60s woman who was both liberated, chic, questing and already intelligently sad at the costs of liberation (the character has had several abortions).

That era is brought back to haunting and humorous life by Ms Jacob and the excellent Madeleine Potter, who lends the comic timing and sexy ruefulness of the young Shirley MacLaine to the part of an American musician in Paris who finds that Sixties life has its downside, such as the discovery that romance can lead to crab lice.

This women-in-society aspect gets a touch too schematic when Mme Melville discourses on her novel about Joan of Arc, but the faint preachiness of tone there serves to show how fine-tuned the rest of the proceedings are.

About the initiation of a 15-year- old into far more than just sex, Madame Melville is one of the most emotionally mature plays to hit London in ages.

Booking to March 2001 (020-7836 9987), at the Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand, London WC2.

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