THEATRE / Good with patches of slush: Paul Taylor reviews John Godber's winter sports comedy On the Piste

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The Independent Culture
THE CHARACTERS in John Godber's plays don't tend to be the sort who'd cry off games. Whether engaged in rugby league in Up 'n' Under, judo in Blood, Sweat and Tears, weight-lifting in Cramp, or rough manhandling in Bouncers, they're preponderantly active, physical types. Transcendental meditation is unlikely to come under his creative scrutiny, since there isn't quite the same risk of ending up in plaster or in traction and, as with the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, you don't need to wear a tracksuit.

On the Piste, now brought to the West End in a rewritten version that is said to improve on the one Hull Truck toured so successfully a couple of years back, plants its personnel on the snowy ski-slopes of a slightly downmarket Austrian resort. Thanks to Julia Godfrey's fine revolving set, which whisks the action fluently around various slopes and mountain tops and the chalet amenities (including mixed sauna), the characters aren't restricted to just talking about skiing; they can give a very funny slapstick demonstration of their lack of prowess.

Sexual as well as skiing prowess is, of course, much on the mind - the one popularly supposed to be a reflection of the other. It's a belief vigorously fostered by Tony (excellent Peter Birch), the tanned, ultra-fit, semi-plastic Adonis of an Austrian ski instructor, with the playfully suggestive manner of a lewd nursery school teacher. 'You must all be very sexy in the body?' he orders at the first lesson, with a loose, provocative wiggle and raunchy hints at the possibility of extra tuition.

It is a bright idea of Godber's to introduce to this competitive, sexed-up atmosphere two very ordinary couples (whose relationships aren't up to taking its strains) and the attractive, confident, more upmarket Melissa (Stephanie Pack), who is slumming it here while her husband is on business in Brussels. But reservations about how Godber then handles the situation quickly arise from the tone. The popularity of the play strikes me as akin to that achieved by Shirley Valentine. Like Willie Russell's hit, On the Piste reaches out to a wide audience of (non-regular) theatre-goers and gives the same painful jolts of recognition as it cheerily exposes the chauvinistic vanity and despicable double standards of male thirty-somethings. It administers its salutary, bitter pills, though, on a spoon laden with reassuring jam. This is not a function of the play's conclusions (it ends in realistic discord) but of its general manner.

The text describes the play as 'a bittersweet comedy', an adjective you'd never think of applying to the work of Alan Ayckbourn or Alan Bennett. In their plays, laughter is a complication of, rather than a respite from, our emotional response to the underlying bleakness. Godber, though, is unduly anxious to prevent the proceedings from getting too downbeat. True, the mood of the last-night party, with its ugly, needling banter and half-revealed secrets, is authentically poisoned in Bob Thomson's production, and very well acted. But, as in the broad comic routine of injured, was-he-better-than-me pride put on by Paul Bown's Chris when his partner tearfully confesses to having slept with the instructor, you often feel that what is meant to be a painful collision of tones has become a diverting distraction. Still, the play certainly leaves you with a sour view of the sport. Up to now, it was the bit before the apres-ski that put me off. On the Piste suggests that both before and after should be sedulously avoided.

Garrick Theatre, London WC2 (071-494 5085).