Something rich and strange

Abandonment, Traverse Theatre, Venue 15 (0131-228 1404), to 26 Aug (times vary)
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The Independent Culture

The characters in Whitbread-winning novelist Kate Atkinson's first full-length play experience abandonment in numerous different ways. For Elizabeth, her husband's recent departure is all of a piece with the defining betrayal of her life: her natural mother's disappearance 40 years before, when Elizabeth was found, as an hours-old infant, in a gents' public toilet.

The characters in Whitbread-winning novelist Kate Atkinson's first full-length play experience abandonment in numerous different ways. For Elizabeth, her husband's recent departure is all of a piece with the defining betrayal of her life: her natural mother's disappearance 40 years before, when Elizabeth was found, as an hours-old infant, in a gents' public toilet.

As the drama unfolds in Elizabeth's crumbling Victorian flat, through the fractious relationships with her adoptive mother and sister, Ina and Kitty, and her gay best friend Suzy, it becomes clear that all four's sense of loss extends deep and wide. They feel deserted by men, God, morality, order, old certainties, the lives they expected to lead, and frequently by each other - although the others, ultimately, are pretty much all they have to cling to, despite the bitter mutual wounds they've inflicted.

There's no disputing that Abandonment is an impressively ambitious work, characterised by the distinctive synthesis of waspish black comedy, historical sweep and mind-bending intellectual concepts that has won Atkinson such praise and popularity as a novelist. She's succeeded only halfway, however, in adapting her wonderfully agile prose style into viable dramatic dialogue. Given that the very first character we see turns out to be a ghost from the Victorian household that formerly occupied Elizabeth's flat (scenes from which are intercut with the modern narrative), it's immediately clear that there are non-naturalistic forces at work. But if you're playing around with levels of realism, asking us to believe in a set of characters while also using them for more stylised, symbolic or philosophical excursions, you must clearly signal where you are in this spectrum of possibilities at any given point, and Atkinson frequently doesn't.

The result is a nagging uncertainty of tone or pitch - although this may lessen as the show settles in. In content as well as style, its ambitiousness proves a double-edged sword, as Atkinson over-eggs the pudding with themes and ideas without having room to develop or link them, despite the play's sprawling two-and-a-half-hours. Chaos theory, Catholicism, the roots of identity, sibling rivalry, lesbian mothers, dysfunctional families, female masochism, faithless men, the past's intrusions into the present, routes to fulfilment in a signpost-free world - they're all in there, but not quite managing to cohere into more than the sum of these parts.

At the same time, though, this bountiful generosity has its winning side, amplified by committed and versatile performances from the seven-member cast. And while the central quartet's tangle of love-hate relationships and past traumas smacks of soap opera, it nonetheless provides plenty of engrossingly old-fashioned narrative drama.

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