THEATRE / Inside track on a family drama

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The Independent Culture
GEORGE, an old man, is sitting naked in his kitchen at midnight. He smiles vacantly when his wife comes in, then knocks her to the ground when she tries to get him back to bed. 'That'll learn you,' he giggles; 'I'm the boss.'

The opening scene of Maureen Lawrence's Father's Day contains the seeds of everything to come. It establishes this as the first British stage play on Alzheimer's Disease; which, as you would expect, involves a running contrast between the incontinent wreck in the kitchen chair and the formerly vigorous head of the household.

Lawrence calls it a 'family drama', not an Alzheimer documentary, and it gives every sign of being written from inside experience. There is a particular story to be told, and the disease supplies a heightened means of telling it. George strikes his wife and sniggers: the act of a brain-damaged idiot, but also an extension of what he has been doing all his life. Similarly Connie, the wife, clings ever more desperately to her man at every stage of his disintegration. In both you see a generalised type coming into specific focus; and even more so in Barbara, their unmarried daughter, who arrives as a supportive figure, better educated than her parents, and full of sensible suggestions for relieving the strain. Almost her first act, though, is to tank up the old man with Scotch; she relishes the power she now has over this childhood autocrat whom she used to dream of killing.

Despite Ann Penfold's success in changing from a hard-worked head of department to an adolescent witch, Barbara is a pain. She is one of those attention-hogging characters who try to grab the play as their own - which, in this case, is manifestly impossible, even if she had supplied a coherent account of how her father was supposed to have wrecked her life. With that reservation, Father's Day is a fine piece of Northern working-class naturalism. It acknowledges the family's limitations, pruderies, and petty snobisms without mocking them; and all moments of friction, from snappy rejoinders to blazing rows, are controlled by a sensitivity to domestic politics and the characters' unspoken feelings: so that every word is believable, and all the climaxes take you by surprise.

Penny Ciniewicz's production offers an incomparable partnership by Dilys Laye and Richard Mayes who replay 50 years of marriage with an emotional conviction that enlarges your own understanding. Again and again, some apparently stereotyped situation reaches an unforeseen destination through unsentimental precision of feeling. There is no retrospective pathos. Laye, usually the submissive wife, has one outburst where she lashes George for wasting money on the dogs: Mayes stands there in a sulk, then comes back to life with a crafty smile and slips out for the night's gambling. What dominates the show is the recurring contrast between the slack-jawed dotard and the virile family man, shovelling snow and blowing his winnings on a family week in Blackpool. Everything Mayes does is a preparation for what he becomes; and we keep learning about him until Connie finally mentions his cramped work-bench in the factory - thus revealing what the play is about: a big man in a narrow place. This explains the curious impersonality of Mayes's attacks on the women: he is not trying to hurt anybody, he is trying to break free. Not many women writers show such generosity.

Prefixed with a historical introduction to stifle the sceptics, Geoffrey Cush's The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals shows the said proceedings going on in the backsliding French provinces at the time of the Revolution. Hen Matilda is charged with pecking fruit tarts; locusts are threatened with excommunication for contempt of court. Sometimes the population gets out of hand and lynch a suspected pig before its case comes up. A dog (Ricci Harnet) is tortured for information, at which point Peter Benedict's production changes from Swiftean farce to direct horror. The Revolution then intervenes with lunacies of its own.

Running through the piece is a conflict over the court's function. To the Animal Prosecutor (Charles Grant) it is to certify that animals are inhabited by evil spirits. To the Defence, it is to offer consoling explanations for the inexplicable (even if that means prosecuting a tree for falling on a barn). This does something to anchor the play to reality, but not enough. It has comic verve and intellectual sinew, but also a clumsy disinheritance plot, and only comes to life as a sequence of Alice in Wonderland court routines. However, I note that there is a move afoot to institute a Bill of Rights for the great apes; so maybe Mr Cush is onto something.

In Richard Crane's Under the Stars, Pam Ferris plays an understudy, and extracts an amazing range of mischief, wrath, fantasy, stoical wit and other vivid colours from a character who for 25 years has sat in a dressing room knitting. By definition, nothing happens to understudies, and nothing much happens here, not even a budding relationship with her dressing-room mate, unavoidably portrayed by Connie Booth as a Blanche du Bois of Central Casting. Ferris is the compromised realist, Booth the romantic narcissist, and the play reiterates this contrast ad infinitum against the background of two tragedy queens hamming away over the tannoy. Tyler Butterworth gives a winning performance as a nervous assistant director. Otherwise Matthew Francis's production confirms the rule that theatre never strays further from reality then when it ventures backstage.

'Hollywood]' cries the hero of Rodgers and Hart's 1927 musical A Connecticut Yankee on arriving at the Court of King Arthur. So much for a character allegedly 'obsessed with medieval England', who then puts in a medium- rare order when threatened with burning at the stake. Soon Martin (Clive Carter) is managing the kingdom on a percentage basis, while the knights are shooting crap and inquiring 'Art busy, baby?' over Camelot's central exchange. I resisted Ian Talbot's production until half-time, and then succumbed to Basil Hoskins's lisping monarch, Anna Nicholas's dominatrix Morgan le Fay, and Janie Dee's stunning maid-in-waiting turned feminist. Even the book has its points. The score includes 'Thou Swell', 'To Keep My Love Alive' and 'My Heart Stood Still'. Try resisting those.

'Father's Day', West Yorks Playhouse, 0532-442111. 'Criminal Prosecution', Lyric Hammersmith, 081-741 2311. 'Under the Stars', Greenwich, 081-858 7755. 'A Connecticut Yankee', Regent's Park, 071-486 2431.

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