THEATRE: Good Works; Bristol New Vic

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Many years ago, before Neighbours and Home and Away became all- pervasive cultural determinants, Australian soap operas were relegated to the dead zone of weekday afternoons. Mightiest among these was The Sullivans, a family saga spanning decades. Nick Enright's Good Works is The Sullivans chopped up and respliced with "Look, clever stuff" scrawled all over it.

Here, spanning 50 years, is a tale which seeks to expose the strictures and hypocrisy of small-town Australia and the Catholic Church throughout the 20th century. Which seeks to explore how the sins of the fathers are visited on the children. And, bizarrely, which seems to suggest that a boy can become a homosexual simply because he's forced to dress up as a Dutch girl when he's seven. A play which positions itself as an attack on all that is wrong with Australia, yet bases its characters' development on the kind of cheap bar-room psychology associated with a few pints of the amber nectar. This is a world where a boy turns out bad because his dad was a bad penny. Where all religious people are sanctimonious prigs more concerned with appearance than action. And where the straight-laced middle classes keep their upper lips stiff and their chequebooks ready to buy off the pretty girl who went off the rails.

But such a story told simply wouldn't be quite clever enough. So all the timelines intertwine across the stage, which means that, at any point, a character may be five or 50. The audience are given no aid in working out when the current snippet is set. Moreover, not content with having actors playing different ages, they also play a variety of sometimes hard to distinguish characters.

The permutations in this multi-personal time kaleidoscope are endless - the result is headache-inducing. To lend a contemporary edge, the story is interlaced with a gay seduction that must rank among the worst portrayals of a homosexual encounter seen on stage since Dick Emery hung up his stilettos. Rarely will one have the misfortune to witness something that reeks so utterly of artifice, both in its script and execution.

Meanwhile, the subsidiary characters are so stock that even Neighbours would pass them up: the Christian Brother who relishes beating small boys; the slouch-hatted bar owner, refugee from a Fosters ad; the holier-than- thou nun radiating sanctimoniousness and goodness in equal doses. If they ever make it into a film, Central Casting will have a field day.

It is hard to judge performances when one is trying so hard to work out what's going on, and why, and whether anyone really cares. Joe Hall delivers the cartoon caricatures that the script gives him very effectively, and Sarah Burrowes produces both a hard-working performance and a consistent Australian accent. But, overall, Good Works is little more than a stale pot-pourri of black-and-white characters inhabiting a feeble plot wrapped in pseudo-intellectual trickery to give the appearance of depth. I'd watch The Sullivans instead, if I were you.

To 27 Sept. Booking 0117-987 7877

Toby O'Connor Morse