THEATRE: Her Sister's Tongue; Lyric Hammersmith, London

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The Independent Culture
"Our play is about love, so if you were expecting a play about sardines you'll be disappointed." Think how much easier life would be if every playwright followed Janet Goddard's example and started with a character stepping forward to tell the audience what to expect. If only Beckett or Pinter had bothered to follow her advice, we wouldn't have had to toil through all those texts trying to tease out the theses behind their great works.

Of course, it's not really as simple as all that. Her Sister's Tongue is as much about jealousy and family ties as it is about love. It is also about style. Having worked on TV soaps for many years, Goddard takes a vast leap away from the confines of naturalistic dialogue and comes up with an unconventional comedy that turns increasingly surreal and dark.

"I'm really sorry about my family," says Alice. "They're nice girls really." Not so as you'd notice. Her smug daughter Eileen (a perky Janine Wood) is a week away from marrying Jim, a self-confessed nice bloke. "Please care for me," he tells us. Audiences being an obliging lot, we do, at least until we discover that he's also been fooling around with her sister Elizabeth (a powerfully sullen Virginia Radcliffe). She's all for keeping quiet, what with making the wedding dress, which involves such sophisticated techniques as laying Eileen on a table and cutting the fabric out around her. He, however, is desperate to make a clean breast of it.

Until now, this bizarre family sound as if they have walked out of an absurdist comedy from the 1960s. "If you want some sex then have some, but eat your supper first," snaps Alice, played by a marvellously brusque, brisk Eliza Hunt. Goddard pushes the farce button and the sexual confession leads to hilarious physical acts of revenge, climaxing in Eileen cutting out her sister's tongue to peals of laughter from the surprised audience.

Sadly, everything goes awry in the second half. Goddard's script goes into symbolic overdrive as we catch up with the family after some unspecified environmental tragedy. Elizabeth arrives on a visit from Australia where she has lived for 14 years since the events of Act 1, to find a scorched, barren land, with leaves withering on the vine of Nigel Lowery's boldly simple set. Even Jacquetta May's careful direction can't disguise the script's slide into portentousness with lines such as "we forget to love" clunking out of the mouths of the hapless cast.

Unlike Philip Osment's marvellous Flesh and Blood at this theatre, which also used a woman returning after years in Australia to show the effects of time on a fraught, tightly-wrought family, Goddard's writing is too sketchy to support her aims. We merely observe the emotional demands she makes of her characters, rather than sympathise. Tragedy replaces comedy but we're left feeling nonplussed and undernourished.

To 9 Aug. Booking: 0181-743 2311 David Benedict