First Night: The Late Henry Moss, Almeida Theatre, London

A subdued bid to lay father's ghost to rest

Sam Shepard took the role of the father's Ghost in a recent, updated film adaptation of Hamlet. This was piquant casting, for the strain imposed on sons by an overbearing, mysterious father is an abiding preoccupation in this actor-dramatist's own plays.

Extrapolated versions of Shepard père recur in his work (Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Classes et al). Samuel Shepard Rogers VI was a larger-than-life Second World War pilot who, unable to find a role in peacetime, became a violent alcoholic, given to repeated vanishing acts.

In 1984, he died as a result of being run over as he left (where else?) a bar. One wonders what, looking down from the great drinking dive in the sky, he would make of The Late Henry Moss. The play, unveiled in San Francisco in 2000, receives its European premiere in an Almeida production by Michael Attenborough that is expertly attuned to its deadpan loopiness and fiercely conflicted filial emotion.

Here, as the title indicates, dipsomaniac dad is now a corpse, though (played as mountainous, mangy reprobate by the excellent Trevor Cooper) he revives in flashbacks which re-enact the events leading up to his puzzling demise. Recalling the ferocious male-sibling spat in True West, the play focuses on Henry's two sons who are reunited by his death after seven years of estrangement. The territory is classic Shepard, both geographically (Henry's adobe bungalow on the edge of the New Mexican desert) and thematically.

Andrew Lincoln makes a powerful impression as the edgy, suspicious younger brother, Ray. He worries like a ferret at clues that there may have been a climactic encounter between the father and Brendan Coyle's spot-on Earl, the older sibling whose more laid-back approach masks desperate denial. Their clashing accounts of family history constitute a violent battle for possession of the past and, by extension, sway over the present.

The trouble, though, is that the eventual revelation is no surprise and while brutal, it is sentimental. If Earl hadn't absconded in his '51 Buick, leaving mother and brother to the father's untender mercies, she wouldn't have banished her sozzled spouse from the family home and Henry would not have expired morally so far in advance of his physical death. Gulp. Bless.

Flurries of crazy comic life come courtesy of the characters whom Ray interrogates. Jason Watkins is very amusing as the tactlessly gabby taxi driver who ferried Henry to a bizarre fishing trip during his last days. Flaminia Cinque is hilarious as Conchalla, the hectically Hispanic floozie-cum-Earth-Mother who was his terminal girlfriend. But there's also something subdued about the piece, as if Shepard has been overawed by composing a final reckoning. I suspect that The Late Henry Moss will turn out not to be the last word on the subject of nagging, tantalising Pop, and that Shepard will persist in his fertile failure to lay his father's ghost.

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