DOROTHY L SAYERS' Gaudy Night, Michael Frayn's Donkey's Ears: going back to one's youth, and to the scene of the crime that was one's education, is a genre all of its own. Usually, though, it's a pretty upper- middle-class sport. In his new play, Prize Night, Jim Cartwright lobs some proletarian pep into the pot. The bad news is that he also slings in a surfeit of self-pity.
Woodenly played by the author himself, Burn, the hero of the piece, is a celebrated late-thirtysomething, London-dwelling novelist who has returned to his native northern town for the evening to distribute the prizes and give a speech at his old school. There's never any danger of mistaking him for a role model, though, for right at the start, to the despair of his prissy gay minder, he's seen having done a bunk to one of the classrooms and taking sustained solace from a hip flask.
The pretty cleaning lady who shows up turns out to be his teenage sweetheart whom he abandoned for fame and fortune in London town. Given little to do but dig her hands into her pockets in various shades of adoring awkwardness, Kathy Jamieson's Ann accompanies our hero on his drink-fuelled, despairing odyssey round the old haunts. Through her, we learn the news that he was a great kisser, a near-miss for the Manchester United squad, and so much her intellectual superior that she often did not understand what he was saying. Oh, and that he broke his parents' hearts by ditching them.
The play can't decide whether it wants to be a critique of, or an apologia for, this syndrome, so it has its cake and gorges on it. As Cartwright proved in his early hit, Road, he has a genius for social surrealism. The best sections of Prize Night and of Gregory Hersov's Spunky-in-the- Round production are like an exhilarating head-on collision between Road and Coronation Street. There's a hilarious scene in a threatened pub where David Fielder's wonderful landlord, desperate to keep the brewery happy, has gone manic with "theme" concepts and is too busy tossing sex dolls over the counter and swanning round in a suspender belt to pull you a pint. A Seventies evening at the local rink becomes a fantastic free-for- all retrospective as figures from Burn's past skate and flail round him (it's the most dynamic memory-play idea since Peter Nichols' incomparable Forget-Me-Not Lane).
But even while you're laughing, you can feel yourself blush. It's excellent, for example, that one of the skaters is his jealous old English teacher, who confesses to having read Burn's earlier novels "with eyes half-closed like a medicine I had to take". A mistake, however, to have him bear such grudgingly garrulous witness to Burn's literary brilliance. At the end of the first half, the increasingly Lear-like hero stands in a downpour and begs the good honest Northern rain to cleanse him. It made this Northern- born reviewer feel like chucking a bucket of good honest southern bath water over him.
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