The Notebook, Royal Lyceum Theatre

Lost boys in a world without pity
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The Independent Culture

The author's name may be Agota Kristof, but the play is nothing like The Mousetrap. Adapted by the actors from the Hungarian author's 1986 novel of the same name, The Notebook is set in an eastern European town during the Second World War. Finding it impossible to feed herself and her twin boys, a young woman leaves the children with their widowed grandmother and disappears. The grandmother is crude and mean, and the boys cling to each other, retaining, as they age, a child's clear-eyed, ruthless view of the world.

On a bare stage, their only props two chairs, a table and a few buckets, four actors of De Onderneming, Antwerp, create the population of their unnamed town. A young woman (Carly Wijs) plays all the younger citizens of both sexes, while a middle-aged man (Ryszard Turbiasz) portrays the rest. The children (Robby Cleiron and Günther Lesage) are 30-year-old men in underwear – a costume which, while symbolising their poverty and abandonment, adds an unnecessarily precious note to a play that already has plenty.

Ignored by their grandmother, the boys, who are always together, often holding hands and at times speaking in unison, decide that knowledge is the key to survival, and record their findings in a notebook. When they finish the Bible (the only book in the house), they get history and geography books from the local priest. They acquire some worldly knowledge, too, spying on a soldier in bed with the priest's maid and on a dim-witted girl with a harelip satisfying herself sexually with a dog.

But the boys do not use what they know solely for their own ends: Discovering that the backward girl has been molested by the priest, they blackmail him and give her the money.

But the boys' chief aim is to make themselves invulnerable. When their grandmother beats them, and even when she slams their hands in a drawer, they force themselves not to cry out. Repeating disturbing words to each other, they believe that they "make these words gradually lose their meaning, and the pain in them is reduced". The words are "arsehole'', "silly sod'' and "I love you''.

The four actors are impeccably, crisply, pointedly realistic without overdoing either the harshness or pathos. But the form of the play (a series of brief sketches, all nearly identical in tone), the coolness of its presentation, the lack of visual texture, and the distancing effect of having the children played by adults all combine to rob the piece of emotion. The ending, which should hit us like a punch in the throat, merely comes across as a black joke.

A word of warning: the essay in the programme gives away that ending in the first sentence. Not the sort of mistake that the author of The Mousetrap would have made.

22 Aug at 19.30, 24-25 Aug at 18.00 (0131-473 2000)