Theatre: Death... and the very peculiar maiden

I'LL BE TED, YOU BE SYLVIA HAMPSTEAD THEATRE LONDON
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The Independent Culture
YOU SHOULD think twice about dying anywhere in the vicinity of Wendy, the feminist artist at the centre of Simon Smith's new comedy. Having drawn her father drooling on his death bed, she skipped the funeral but had his cremated remains turned into powder paint which she mixed with her menstrual blood and used as the medium for her "abortion pieces".

Symbolic, or what? Now Wendy's aged mother is fighting a losing battle with cancer and if you were her you wouldn't like the way Wendy keeps eyeing the large aquarium she just happens to have moved into her apartment. It's more than 20 years since the estranged pair have seen each other, but Wendy has just returned to her Nottinghamshire birthplace to create a piece of public art on the subject of the burgeoning spirit of Wignall womanhood.

Smith has a smart comic line in serene bad taste and Jonathan Church's attractive cast pitches the cheerfully dubious material in just the right bright, semi-knowing manner. Take the issue of the selfishness, or otherwise, of committing suicide. The argument has surely never before turned on precisely what food Sylvia Plath should have left for her children's breakfast when she gassed herself.

Susan Brown's lovely Stella, the compulsively practical carer at the old people's home, thinks the bread and milk which the poet put out was not very imaginative. After all, kids like crisps and pop. She maintains: "Given the circumstances, she might have pushed the boat out." Much further along that line, and you would be criticising Plath for not leaving party hats.

That sequence gives you a fair indication of the humour. It's a bit Alan Bennett-like in its down-to-earth Northern perspective on the baffling ways of metropolitan artists. But that is pushed to a point of almost self-defeating artificiality. Indeed, most of the best exchanges sound as though they come from other writers. Referring to the financial support, Stella asks: "Do you know what you get if you foster teens?" "Regular sex", suggests Wendy, a cool reply that would have gained Orton's approval. Also reminiscent of him is Smith's ear for the unintended heartlessness of the well-intentioned. "As I say to Tasha, it's their faculties they've lost not their liberties," declares Stella.

The play makes you laugh out loud often enough to compensate for its not having a distinctive voice. More of a problem is Smith's short-term approach to themes. There's a good gag when Tasha, the young trainee in Institutionalised Care, delightfully played by Danielle Tilley, reveals that she got side-tracked on to a "modern British Art" web site when she should have been researching "attention deficit syndrome".

There's a similarly grasshopper attitude to issues in a play that swerves into the lurid thickets of incest, lesbianism and a mixture of the two as it gradually reveals that Wendy and her father mingled more than ashes and menses.

As a character, the artist does not add up psychologically. But, by sheer force of personality, Nichola McAuliffe imposes an imaginative unity on her, a feat all the more admirable in that she took on the part at very short notice.

To 9 Oct, 0171-722 9301

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