Theatre: No happy endings for a family at war

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STUART PATERSON has long held sway over Scottish stages during pantomime season with his adaptations of fairy tales and children's classics. This year, not content with having at least three Christmas shows running simultaneously, he has also turned his pen to this piece of non-seasonal adult fare, a rewritten version of his 1986 play Mr Government.

Set in 1935, in Paterson's native rural Ayrshire, the action opens just after the elder of two brothers, Matt, last seen on leave from the First World War, has unexpectedly returned to his family home. Exhausted, ill and still haunted by his experiences in the trenches, he is welcomed with open arms by his younger sibling Rab, who in Matt's absence has buried their farm-labourer father, built up his own haulage business, and married Catherine, a much younger girl from the city.

At first, the prodigal's return seems auspicious; nursed back to health by Catherine, he joins Rab in running the business, bringing his worldly experience to bear in ambitious plans for expansion. His intentions, however, gradually start to appear less than benign, as his cynical bitterness and resentment at Rab's having appropriated what he sees as his birthright threaten to demolish the latter's hard-won rewards.

The dialogue is beautifully rendered in the local Ayrshire dialect, lending it both a robustness of texture and an earthy, poetic resonance. At the same time, several passages highlight the gulf that can lie, especially for working-class men, between emotion and language.

Paterson's writing is well complemented by vigorous, subtly detailed performances, with Liam Brennan and John Kazek providing a powerful twin lead as Matt and Rab, and Vicki Liddelle's Catherine treading a spirited line between immaturity and adulthood. Russell Hunter and Robert Carr balance gentle comic relief with chorus-like commentary as Rab's two employees, while Blythe Duff, playing the hard-bitten mother of an illegitimate, mentally handicapped son, creates an effectively ominous, faintly Cassandra- like counterpart to Matt's increasingly sinister aura.

Thematically, the piece is less well-defined, attempting to juggle a variety of concerns - sibling rivalry, the legacies of the Great War, the conflicting values of honest toil and fellow-feeling as against hard- headedness - but failing to focus on any of them. The motivations underlying Matt's role in the drama - half-demonic, half dog-in-the-manger - also remain obscure. The result is an absorbing, dynamically crafted production that none the less delivers less than it promises.

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