Theatre: Not even the cavalry can save us now

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The Independent Culture
THEY'RE TRICKY things, accents. Set a play in Dublin or Arkansas, and many English thespians shy like nervous fillies approaching Becher's Brook. The result is actors tackling an accent with the white-lipped concentration of a novice tightrope walker in a high wind, eyes fixed firmly on the swaying line of vowels and consonants to the exclusion of all else. It is a sad indictment of the teaching at most drama schools that the end product is often a dog's breakfast. Such as in Show of Strength's UK premiere of The Last Apache Reunion by Bernard Farrell, an Irish playwright.

Any talent is muffled under a dreadful display of dialect-speaking. One actor's efforts sweep across the British Isles like a heavenly spotlight, alighting briefly on Birmingham, Cornwall and Blackrock Dublin, before ending up at a Liverpool speech therapy unit. This failure to clear the first hurdle, let alone get a firm grasp on Irish rhythms, culture or ambience, means that The Last Apache Reunion comes about as close to capturing some sense of Ireland as an Irish theme pub.

The one contribution guaranteed to be authentic is the script. Unfortunately, it offers little aid to a cast already going down for the third time in a sea of alien culture and tricky vowel sounds. Like an elderly motorcycle, it weaves along at an uncertain pace before emitting a protracted series of explosions and fizzling down to a few dying splutters.

The story focuses on the reunion, 15 years on, of the members of a school gang, the Apaches. Like the Seven Dwarfs or the Famous Five, the Apaches are a stock character pick 'n' mix: the spiv, the runty mediocrity, the brainbox, and so on. And then there's Gregory.

Gregory's not there - as the characters remind one another at invidiously frequent intervals. Within five minutes, any semi-alert viewer familiar with the cliches of the reunion drama will have figured out that "something unpleasant" happened to Gregory. An audience already using steel hawsers to suspend their disbelief is finally told that poor benighted Gregory's otherwise unblemished life was so disturbed by a single incidence of Apache bullying that a mere year later he decided to take a long walk off the short Dun Laoghaire pier. As a result, the Apache braves are riddled with deep-seated and unresolved guilt complexes, and the reunion is less than happy.

As a study in communal guilt, Farrell is treading ground well covered by everything from Siegfried Lenz's Zeit der Schuldlosen to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. It is a subject where the best work has always come out of a society's sense of shared culpability, as in the work of post-war European playwrights such as Durrenmatt and Frisch. While a sense of collective responsibility for past offences - such as the abusive actions of the Christian Brothers and the treatment of single mothers - may now slowly be permeating Irish society, it is a little optimistic to expect an English audience to pick up on the potential parable. What is left is a poorly structured retread of the "ghost at the reunion" concept.

Show of Strength's involuntary sabbatical from the theatrical landscape appears to have done them no good whatsoever. One can only hope that it is the languor of enforced inactivity which has reduced one of Britain's leading pub theatre companies to the level of am-dram, and that normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Runs until 21 November.

Box office: (0117) 953 7735