Matches for Monkeys, Chelsea Theatre, London

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"On the third day she rose again in accordance with the scriptures," declares Declan in Sean Buckley's first play, Matches for Monkeys (joint winner of the 2002 Verity Bargate Award). He's not referring to some heretical female challenge to the Christian deity, but to his mentally ill Irish Catholic mother, Maura (Mary Duddy), who has taken to lying in the bath for three days at a stretch since cuts closed the clinic where she was being treated.

"On the third day she rose again in accordance with the scriptures," declares Declan in Sean Buckley's first play, Matches for Monkeys (joint winner of the 2002 Verity Bargate Award). He's not referring to some heretical female challenge to the Christian deity, but to his mentally ill Irish Catholic mother, Maura (Mary Duddy), who has taken to lying in the bath for three days at a stretch since cuts closed the clinic where she was being treated.

It appears she keeps taking The Tablet, if not always the tablets, for her home is a tip of religious magazines and unwashed plates.

When not in the bath, this recluse shuts herself away in the airing cupboard. Meanwhile, her sectioned daughter, Anne (Carolyn Tomkinson) is on the run from a psychiatric ward and claims that she can't go back to her flat because a man has broken in and is making threats from inside the settee. Declan (Gary Shelford), who abandoned his studies seven years earlier, has retreated into emotionally damaged isolation. He's supposed to be installing a new kitchen in the London home of the older brother, Anthony, the family success story whose sanity seems to have been preserved by the simple expedient of decamping to China. But Declan can't seem to get the job finished, frittering away his days in a depressingly soulless atmosphere of unopened shrink-wrapped units and grubby incompleteness.

Beware of any play where all the characters are ostentatiously dysfunctional and where the dramatist seems to think that merely by exhibiting their symptoms and oddities these figures justify their claim on our attention. We saw recently how this assumption scuppered the Sam Mendes-produced American play Fuddy Meers.

Matches for Monkeys does not fall into the trap of being gratingly hyper and kooky. The mood is downbeat to a fault. The trouble, though, is that having established the family group and their assorted quirks, Buckley does not seem to know what to do with them, other than shift them slowly to a drab 4am birthday party where, for severely under-dramatised reasons, their resentful differences are eventually suspended.

Buckley has a good ear for glum comedy and for the sad undertones in constitutional scattiness, and Teresa Walker's strongly acted production does this aspect full justice. "I tried to get a bottle of Cava in the garage," explains the mother, "but the man couldn't give it me as it was after 11. He'd like to have, I told him it was your birthday. He says 'Happy Birthday'." Well, it's the thought that counts - whatever that was.

But an amusing scene where Declan turns the tables on a hapless questionnaire-wielding visitor from a presbyterian church (Mark Huckett) points to a fatal weakness in the piece. Before frightening him away, Declan tells this man that he "should have brought a sleeping-bag" if he wanted to get to the truth of his situation. It's an ironic statement in a play which offers scarcely any context for understanding the plight of its personnel. One isn't asking for a sociological tract, but some analysis is needed of why these unhappy folk are as they are.

To 17 July (0870 990 8454)

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