THEATRE / Fiddling on the roof: Paul Taylor reviews Alan Bleasdale's latest comedy On the Ledge at the Nottingham Playhouse

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The Independent Culture
At the start of Alan Ayckbourn's Revengers' Comedies, a man bent on suicide finds that Hungerford Bridge seems to have been double-booked for death-leaps that evening. Just about to jump, he's halted by the cries of an earlier contender caught on a girder below. This situation is normalcy incarnate, though, compared to that in Alan Bleasdale's On the Ledge where no fewer than eight characters spend the whole play edging precariously round the ledges or clinging to the roof of a semi-derelict high-rise block of flats in Liverpool.

Only one of them, in fact, wants to die. Well acted by David Ross, he's a nervy little man in a suit who - in a pretty shameless device for beefing up the play's vision of a world gone mad - clutches a briefcase full of oddball press cuttings which he blurts out periodically like some deranged version of Cyril Fletcher. Whether on the run, the fiddle, or the chase, the rest of the folk are, in contrast to this cardboard chorus-figure, desperate to survive.

First encountered is a pair of tryingly lovable Scouse scallies (Mark McGann and Jacob Abraham), small-time thieves who think they've hit the jackpot but then, pursued by two hammer-wielding toughs, look more likely to hit the pavement. Good and Evil are up there, too, in ideologically form. The latter is represented by Shaun (Jimmy Mulville), a villainous property developer and sharp-suited local-boy-made-bad who has certain affinities with the corrupt council leader in GBH. His activities are being investigated by the Inland Revenue and he needs to get back some incriminating papers lodged in the flat of a former girlfriend, the compassionate, caring Mal (Dearbhla Molloy) who would now like to expose him.

The scenario sounds promising and there are indeed some good jokes and the odd inspired riff in the dialogue. But even Robin Lefevre's spirited production can't disguise the fact that the farce in this high-rise comedy remains stubbornly grounded and the angry vision comes across as crude rather than stark. Set on bonfire night, the play ends with the property developer triumphantly burning the documents as the rioting working classes set fire to their homes below. 'Save the sanctity for the New Statesman, twat', he jeers at the distraught Mal (a line that achieves instant classic status). The only surprise, you feel, is that flames don't leap from his mouth, too, as he gloatingly envisages exploiting the people whose frustration has taken this suicidal turn. Worthwhile perceptions are rendered risible here through overkill.

On the Ledge can't be said to build inexorably to this fiery finale, but then the farce throughout is a bit low on propelling logic. It keeps being becalmed by material that would be better suited to a stand-up routine (such as Mal's thoughts on why it's cock-eyed that 'shit' is a more okay word than 'fuck') and by involved explanations about how the current situation has arisen which entirely dispel one's doubts. Mal's, for example, is the first council flat I've ever seen with a secret wall safe, while her now-regretted involvement with Shaun, though carefully corroborated, still looks a shade unlikely in the present tense of the play.

Up and down on his hoist, Gary Olsen is delightful as the cynical/idealistic fireman, who would normally spend bonfire night being stoned by schoolchildren. But the play, while it's rich in anecdotal evidence of moral decay and social decline, isn't nearly so hot on general analysis. Hanging upside down at the start, one of the Scouse lads is seen painting graffiti on a wall. He has trouble spelling 'Anarchy' and in this fitful, preachy farce Alan Bleasdale seems to have problems making it happen on stage.

On the Ledge continues until 20 March at the Nottingham Playhouse (Box office: 0602 419419); then tours.