THEATRE / Making the best of a pretty bad business

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE FIRST three figures who make their mark in Michael Hastings' Unfinished Business are a little boy skipping about in white socks, a brattish young aristo in bed with the housemaid, and a peppery old man struggling to get out of his wheelchair. From which you will rightly surmise that these are all the same character: Beamish, son and heir to Lord Sheffield.

The Sheffields are a public-spirited clan who dislike the way the country is going, and readily risk their safety for the sake of a better Britain. Which means that, around the time young Beamish is clambering out of the sack with Feebs, his elders are hosting a party to welcome Hitler's Operation Sea Lion, and lay plans for a harmonious Saxon landscape cleansed of Jews and freemasons. Fast- forward to the 1990s, and we find the tottery old Beamish's ideals as unshakeable as ever. From which you may conclude that Unfinished Business is a warning against the re-emergence of fascism from the debris of the Berlin Wall. This time you would be wrong. To anyone who had never heard of it, fascism as presented here (a classless back-to-the-land creed) would seem quite attractive.

In previous plays about Idi Amin, St Just and Lee Harvey Oswald, Hastings has repeatedly used drama to get inside the minds of political fanatics, doing all he can to give these demons a human face. He certainly does his best for Lord Sheffield (Philip Voss, oozing patrician charm) who emerges not only as the perfect host, but as a model employer who raised his under-footman (Jasper Britton) from the gutter and keeps him in the job despite his conviction that he is a spy in the pay of MI5. From which the question arises of whether his Lordship is crackers, or the victim of even wilder plotting than that of the Imperial Fascist League.

Given the line-up of similarly afflicted characters, the question answers itself. Hastings this time is not getting into anyone's mind: his attention is fully absorbed in trying to combine a memory play with a thriller. Periodically the result yields a flash of ideological contact between the 1930s and the present. But during most of Steven Pimlott's defiantly assertive production, you watch actors trying to achieve oases of emotional truth in a desert of mechanical contrivance. Hastings' trick is to introduce a cliche and then contradict it. I much admired Gemma Jones, summoning up cascades of panicky laughter from the vacant role of Lady Sheffield. The upstairs-downstairs relationship of Toby Stephens (Beamish) and Monica Dolan (Feebs) is a triumph of performance over material. For, besides resorting to the tale of the milord and the housemaid, Hasting asks us to believe that, in spite of turning her out of the house pregnant, Beamish loves her, and is thus stricken to the heart as an old man (Geoffrey Bayldon) on discovering his nurse is his long-lost daughter. Perhaps some satire is intended. But without the author's name, would this rickety piece have stood any chance of acceptance by the RSC?

For a seriously effective thriller, try Mike Cullen's The Cut; and do not be put off by the fact that it takes place between four Scottish miners 3,000 feet underground. Cullen, a miner turned linguistics scholar, betrays none of the usual pit-face heroics in this classically organised fable of injustice, reprisal and compulsive power games. Salter, a union activist in the 1980s, takes a murder rap for a crime he didn't commit, and returns eight years later to unmask the killer and solve the mystery of his father's death.

As a thriller-writer, Cullen delivers the goods in an engrossingly intricate plot whose jaws finally close on a weaselly villain. But his hero, locked up while the world was moving on, has other things to discover. 'Most of your fan club,' a former union comrade tells him, 'were first out of the gate when the real money moved in.' Now pit-head meetings have given way to conferences in the shade of rubber plants, and solidarity has been replaced by greed for promotion. In solving the crime, Salter simultaneously uncovers its motive: a blind ambition for something less and less worth having. Martin McCardie's production (transferred from Glasgow's Tron Theatre) is played by a magnificent company headed by Frank Gallagher; and if 1994 brings another writing debut of this quality we shall be in luck.

'You have learnt nothing except solidarity, and that is what's destroying you.' Such is Brecht's gloss on the parallel situation in Fatzer Material. A group of First World War deserters huddle together in a Muhlheim cellar while Fatzer - a leader who refuses to lead - strolls round town, collecting food and endangering their lives. Why plan for tomorrow if you cannot live today?

A thorough understanding of Fatzer would no doubt illuminate the entire Brechtian oeuvre; what we have here is a two- hour text selected by Heiner Muller from the unpublished 550-page original. Brecht drew on it for his other work, but never put Fatzer itself on the stage. Is it playable? No distinct answer emerges from Marc von Henning's high-intensity production. The setting - three lecterns surrounding an earth- box acting area - promises a combined long and short-range focus on the events; but no clear relationship develops

between the dialogue of the starving squaddies and the icy generalisations of the Chorus. Both certainly transmit a sense of stifling claustrophobia, but this undercuts the show's aims as a learning experience.

What remains is the all-too- clear tale of Fatzer himself (Dan Jemmett): a teacher killed by reluctant pupils; a character who transcends the squalor and peril of his situation in lines (translated by von Henning) some of which are worthy of Buchner's Woyzeck. 'When I see you eat, I see others behind digesting you.' There is another Brechtian motto for the Scottish miners.

In September Tide, a silly romance by Daphne du Maurier, a masterful Welsh artist goes on a Cornish honeymoon and falls for his mother-in-law. The first act curtain falls pre- consummation, but next day Mrs Tucket the cleaning lady confides that 'the tide came so high up it washed right under my door'. Noble renunciation follows. The story never gets going, but Celia Bannerman's company give it a gutsy performance, with a smoulderingly illicit duo between Susannah York and Michael Praed; and brilliant support from Hermione Norris, who almost turns the neglected young bride into a human being.

'Unfinished Business', Pit, 071- 638 8891. 'The Cut', Bush, 081- 743 3388. 'Fatzer Material', Gate, 071-229 0706. 'September Tide', Comedy, 071-867 1045.

(Photograph omitted)