THEATRE / Holding back the tears: Clare Bayley reviews William Gibson's The Miracle Worker at the Comedy Theatre, London

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It's ironic that William Gibson's 1959 play has become known as 'the Helen Keller story' when the life- history of her tutor, Annie Sullivan, is so much more remarkable. It has every tear- jerking scenario you could imagine: a violent, drunken, Irish-immigrant father failing in the New World, a tubercular mother who dies young, a beloved little brother (who also dies), painful eye-disease and ultimately, blindness, operations, recovery of sight, kindly patrons and international reknown thanks to her success with Helen Keller. The Miracle Worker is reluctant to let slip any of these opportunities to demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit and tug at the audience's heart-strings.

'An iron will was hammered out on the anvil of misfortune,' wrote Annie's principal at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, and she was clearly no shrinking violet. The decision to cast fresh-faced Jenny Seagrove in the role is questionable, but then without a star, you haven't got a show. Seagrove gallantly purses her lips and strides around in a spirited sort of way, periodically blinking becomingly to remind us of her precarious eye- sight. The script gives her some enjoyably sassy backchat, mostly in relation to Helen's overbearing father (William Gaunt) who is shocked by her emancipated views and independent ways. 'I don't see how I can be rude to you if you're not around to bother me,' quips Seagrove in that peculiar accent which aims for a cross between rural Irish and Boston poorhouse and lands up nowhere at all.

Seagrove's effort is not helped by Richard Olivier's direction, which lacks the merest flicker of invention. When Annie's little lost brother returns to haunt her, cue lighting effects (a blue filter) and an echoing voice box, leaving Seagrove marooned on stage with nothing to do but act upset. There is much naturalistic business on stage (even a pump with real running water), but nothing can disguise the staginess of Sean Cavanagh's cramped doll's house of a set.

Catherine Holman gives a remarkably unsentimental performance as the kicking, biting, manipulating Helen, though unfortunately the wobbling set isn't a match for her more exuberant tantrums. 'Obedience without understanding is a blindness, too,' admits Annie, but she also knows that misguided indulgence will be more cruel in the long run.

The big scenes are between Annie and Helen, a wordless battle of wills which peaks before the interval when Annie tries to force her charge to eat with a plate and spoon rather than snatching food from her parents' plates. It's the kind of scene physical theatre companies like Complicite could do so well. Without even a choreographer credited in the programme (despite dialect and dialogue coaches), Seagrove and Holman manage admirably. But it comes close to collapsing into slapstick and, on the night I saw it, did provoke sporadic guffaws. Annie understands about pity and obedience, but does an audience reduced to laughing?

'The Miracle Worker' runs at the Comedy Theatre, London W1, until 12 Nov. Booking: 071-867-1045