THEATRE / Hostages to misfortune: Paul Taylor on Someone Who'll Watch Over Me at Hampstead

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The Independent Culture
NOT MUCH scope for a movement director in the new play at Hampstead, as all three male characters spend their time chained to the wall of a Beirut cell. Unlike William Nicholson's Map of the Heart, which dealt with the hostages obliquely, Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me brings us into direct contact with them - at first, just the odd-couple pairing of Adam (Hugh Quarshie), a high- achieving black American doctor, who is trying to bolster his morale with a determined regime of press-ups and physical jerks, and an Irish journalist Edward (Stephen Rea), constitutionally weaker and more cynical though with a streak of wiry whimsicality. Shortly, as if in a sick reworking of a routine stereotype-joke, the Irishman and the Yank, are joined by an Englishman, Michael (Alec McCowen), an old-maidish widower of equivocal sexuality who has come to Beirut to teach, after being 'rationalised' out of his job as a lecturer in Middle English.

If this were just a play about how ancestral differences between people persist, even in shared extremity, then it would be hard put to avoid predictability - even though McGuinness often finds lively, clever ways of getting the point across. The atavistic spat engaged in by Edward and Michael, for example, over the cause of the Great Irish Famine may be jaggedly funny, but it feels too par- for-the-course. Much more interesting and inspired is the moment during the Englishman's hilarious replay of Virginia Wade's 1977 Wimbledon triumph, when Edward suddenly takes up the cudgels on behalf of 'poor wee Betty Stover'. Nothing diminutive or shrinking about Betty, of course, so there's more than a pinch of wild self-parody in Edward's rushing to her defence. By this stage, he has sufficient fellow-feeling for Michael to be able to guy his instinctive anti-British sentiment.

Given the heightened consciousness of differences, it seems odd that Adam's colour is barely commented on. That character's anxious grappling with what it means to be American is wonderfully transmitted by Quarshie, as is the gentleness under the unfamiliar insecurity and rage and the curious beauty of spirit. So, to some extent, an audience shares his cell- mates' sense of loss, when at the start of the second half, it's revealed that he is missing, presumed shot. One big danger with this sort of eventless drama where confined people reminisce, tell jokes, make up letters home etc is that the characters' need to fill up time gives the playwright (shackled, like them, to a unity of place) too much leeway in other respects. Before the interval, for example, Adam is last seen singing 'Amazing Grace' rather beautifully and later, to get the grief-numbed Edward to come off his hunger-strike during their period of bereavement, Alec McCowen gives an exquisite recital of George Herbert's poem 'Love (III)'. On these and other occasions, though, this reviewer's willingness to be moved was hampered by the thought of how easy such effects are.

This is not to detract from the fineness of Robin Lefevre's production, nor the splendid partnership of Rea and McCowen, as the two men confront their relationship with their dead fathers and learn a mutual tolerance. Though there are times, he confesses bluntly, when he cannot stand the sight or smell of his cell mate, Edward can at least listen without contempt to Michael's tributes to the spiritual support of English literature. Out of senseless tragedy, then, some human hope. Admirably, though, the play does not elect to end on a sentimental note, but with the grim sight of Michael, a lone prisoner now, desperately banging his chains.

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me continues at Hampstead Theatre (Box office: 071-722 9301).

(Photograph omitted)