Playing Sinatra, New End Theatre, London

Norman does it Frank's way
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The Independent Culture

Middle-aged Norman, a bit of a rebel when young, wanted to annoy his stuffy, opera-loving parents. So, as a lad in the Sixties (Bernard Kops wrote the play in 1991), he got their goat by becoming a devotee of... Frank Sinatra? Following a signal event in 1998, Kops rewrote the ending of his play, to set it in that year, and made Norman's rebellion even more improbable. Of course, if his parents were upset by Norman's playing "Come Fly with Me" when everyone else was enthralled by Elvis or The Beatles, it's no wonder they produced such a weird son.

It's not only Norman's choice of idol that makes Playing Sinatra seem a drama out of its time. This is a story that's familiar to us from the Sixties as well. Most of it is conveyed by the set, old-rose Victorian furniture and dirty womb-coloured wallpaper covered with photos of the great man.

Norman, a bookbinder, works at his Streatham home, which he never leaves; his sister, Sandra, goes out to an unspecified job and shops each Friday for their Marks & Spencer dishes, which Norman refers to jocularly as his "cordon-bleu cuisine".

Bald, with National Health glasses, Norman writes poetry, but there his resemblance to Philip Larkin ends. Norman's brief poems have such titles as "Dog in a Microwave" or "Pussy in a Microwave" - the latter, one suspects, has a double meaning given the suddenness with which Norman's kisses and cuddles with his sister turn into rage.

"Playing Sinatra" has a double meaning for these two: Not only do they constantly turn on Frank Sinatra's music, they set each other trivia questions on the life of their hero (needless to say, none of the questions has the answer "the Mafia") or act out their fantasies.

These daydreams - Norman dons a fedora and mouths along to a record, or becomes a chat-show host interviewing Sandra on why she loves Frank - emphasise how tame and dated nature of the play: If these scenes appear dull and twee, just imagine what Joe Orton would have done with them.

Nor are they exploited for more dramatic or psychological effect: Sandra's acquiesence in the games seems odd to begin with - why should she share her brother's anachronistic obsession? And, as Sandra grows more distant from her brother, might she not try to introduce some harsh truths or subversiveness into their play?

The acting in David Salter's production is excellent. In his rage and instability, David McAlister's Norman is frighteningly realistic, as well as making us sympathetic to the character's pain - it's not his fault that Kops's banal dialogue doesn't give us anything to like about him as well.

Jennie Stoller's Sandra is perhaps a bit too robust to have knuckled under to Norman all her life, but her briskness provides a necessary counter to his intensity. Best of all is Miles Richardson as the creepily calm Phillip, whose friendship with Sandra inspires Norman to a third poem: "Viper in a Microwave." Why this handsome, well-bred, educated stranger should pay court to the older, dowdy Sandra is a question that, oddly, never troubles her, even after Phillip, asked what he does, replies, "I'm a seeker."

The more sensitive patrons of the New End Theatre might like to be warned that toward the end of the play there is a distasteful mime of intercrural intercourse, but, otherwise they can relax. The rest of the time, apart from that microwave, they might well be back in the Sixties.

To 7 September (020-7794 0022)