Theatre: Entertaining bag of tricky questions

Review: HANDBAG; LYRIC THEATRE, HAMMERSMITH

WHAT WOULD Lady Bracknell say if she caught a gay man masturbating into a teacup with a view to the artificial insemination of a lesbian friend? Something a bit stronger perhaps, than her Wildean line "Rise, Sir, from this semi-recumbent posture. It is most indecorous." I only ask because in Handbag, the great doyenne of dowagers shares a play with just such a person.

Subtitled "The Importance of Being Someone", this ingenious and highly entertaining new piece by Mark (Shopping and Fucking) Ravenhill comes from an unexpected angle at the whole issue of parenting in the modern world of sperm donors and complicated sexualities, and the question of what "natural" and "unnatural" mean in such matters.

As his exemplar of someone who survived the most bizarre upbringing, Ravenhill mischievously seizes on Jack Worthing in Wilde's The Important of Being Earnest - left as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station and named and brought up by the charitable old gentleman, Mr Thomas Cardew, who found him. Just a literary convention? Or was there a fishier background to all this? Who was that old gentleman, and was Miss Prism's mixing up of baby and manuscript a genuine accident?

Ravenhill provides darkly droll answers in a prequel to Wilde's play, set 28 years earlier, which punctuates and counterpoints the episodes involving two gay couples and their disputes around the baby.

The result is a heady mixture of inter-textual high jinks, tough, sexually explicit black comedy, and moments of desperate anguish. One of the key lines is that delivered by Ravenhill's Miss Prism (Faith Flint), when she decides to remove the baby from its withdrawn, unloving parents, and hand it over so that she can get on with her novel writing: "To him who needs the child, the child shall be given. That is what justice means." But I don't think the play endorses the view in the straightforward way that Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle underwrites the rather different (but tendentious) principle that a child should belong to whoever would serve it best.

"Need", as a criterion, is questioned in a queasily comic scene where Mr Thomas Cardew (Tim Crouch), whom Ravenhill imagines as the hounded head of a somewhat dubious Society For The Betterment of Foundling Boys of The Lower Orders, wanders into the modern period and lays protective hands on Paul Rattray's superb Phil, a lost young drug addict from the streets, himself stricken at having let a dealer have sex with his five- year-old to clear appalling debts.

From the difficulties of not exploiting people who crave father figures, to the destructive love of nannies, to the problems that two gay couples might face in bonding equally with the child (when news that the labour has started comes through on his pager, Andrew Scarborough's non-donor David is being vigorously fellated by a pick-up), Handbag offers a shrewd, witty survey of the complications, and, admirably, does not reach for easy answers.

Doubling as the characters from both eras, Nick Philippou's fine cast manage the tricky tonal shifts from fluting artful Wildean Pastiche ("Labour? Isn't that something that happens in Manchester?"), to smart contemporary sitcom with some panache. Ravenhill clearly sees it as his job to be provocative rather than to write a Green Paper, and in this task he is signally successful.

Paul Taylor

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