THEATRE: Everybody Knows All Birds Have Wings; Pleasance, London

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The Independent Culture
Catching thieves in plays tends to be a high-risk activity. Unless instantly handed over to the police, dramatic burglars tend to prove major embarrassments to the private citizens who have apprehended them. Take Billy Dunn, nabbed robbing jewellery in Shaw's Heartbreak House. When its occupants decline to send for the police, Billy turns the tables on these specimens of the upper-middle class intelligentsia by threatening to turn himself in. Told to channel his talents into the respectable trade of locksmith, he calls their bluff by demanding a whip-round for the pounds 20 he reckons is needed to set up such a business.

Joseph, the white thief from a deprived background in Randhi McWilliams's Everybody Knows All Bird Have Wings likewise becomes a source of trouble for Pharaoh, a wealthy black 50-year-old ex-boxer, when he catches this youth breaking into his home and takes him prisoner. Black / white, rich / poor: Shaw would have used these divisions for a provocative and paradox- strewn debate about social justice. By contrast, McWilliams' focus on the underlying public issues manages to be both blurred and wavering not just because of the ramshackle dramaturgy of this piece but because of the rigged sentimentality of the story he has chosen to tell.

Attractively played by Matthew Cureton who has to cope with some impossible lines, Joseph has spent most of his young life being treated as though he were less than worthless. His struggle to survive has, it seems, no damaging effects on his morality, only his self esteem. Just the person, then, to engage in a spot of mutual redeeming with Ben Thomas's Pharaoh, a man who, for the past 26 years, has been haunted by the fact that he killed an opponent in the boxing ring - the death toll upped in the subsequent riot.

It's not long before Pharaoh has untied his prisoner and set him to useful work turning the grounds of the house into a golf course. We also see him washing the young man's back as he lies, after a long day's honest labour, in the bath. Pharaoh's interfering, self-seeking sister (Kay Purcell) jumps to the conclusion that there's something homoerotic going on here. You can't quite believe that there isn't, any more than you can quite accept that Pharaoh's 26-year hang up about the boxing tragedy would cause him to vacillate emotionally over the good looking boy for what feels like a comparable period of time.

Credulity is put under further strain when the benign Joseph takes up a career as an insulting, suburbia-scourging radio-phone-in jock. Beginning near the end, then working back to that point, this confusingly structured play has already treated us to regular extracts from Joseph's show and to his uncompromising views on the difference between punishment and discipline. It's hard to say just how regrettable we're supposed to find this new tub-thumping, triumphalist Joseph or the extend to which having Pharaoh as a kind of belated father has reacted unfortunately with the part of Joseph which is still angry at being abandoned as a child by his mother. What is clear is that the play with which McWilliams won the Mobil Award in 1990 must have been several cuts above this feeble feasibility study for a radio drama.

To 22 Feb (0171-609 1800)

Paul Taylor