Theatre: Not such good neighbours

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"ECSTATIC" WOULD be too guarded a way of describing the advance hype on Cloudstreet, the five hour soap-opera epic based on a novel by Tim Winton, which Sydney's much respected Company B have brought now from their Belvoir Theatre to the Riverside Studios. Preview pieces have faithfully reported the infallible standing ovations the show has received on home territory and in Zurich.

"Simply awesome" seems to be about as negative as criticism has been prepared to go. Throwing national understatement to the wind, one British journalist characterised the ending as "transcendental".

I wish I could fling myself into this general celebration wholeheartedly. To be sure, after the full five-hour experience (which, unlike soap-opera, does have a cumulative power), I was left with a healthyadmiration for the poetic simplicity and canny resource of Neil Armfield's staging, and for the quirky character- fulness and commitment of the 14-strong cast.

But I felt as much manipulated as uplifted and troubled by certain strands of emotional spuriousness in the material that, to my mind, vitiates the heart-warming optimism of its message. Beginning at the end of the Second World War and spanning 20 years, the piece charts the eventually intertwined destinies of two very different families - the God-fearing, industrious Lambs, and the feckless, gambling Pickleses - to wind up sharing a large, ramshackle haunted house on the outskirts of Perth.

Since it was once dishonestly acquired by a "respectable" old white woman who mistreated the black girls put in her missionary care, the house has a past not grossly unlike that of Australia itself. The spooks can be seen in eerie, magnified silhouette behind the sheets that surround Robert Cousins's bare, versatile and warmly lit set with its fringes of sand and magical star-pattern of dainty, over-hanging light bulbs.

Particularly sensitive to these unappeased ghosts is Fish Lamb (Daniel Wyllie), the family favourite who is brain damaged in a boyhood near-drowning accident, powerfully staged at the start as the actor is hoisted into the air, frantically grappling with the prawn net in which he is trapped.

Wyllie's self-indulgent, Smike-like performance - all bandy-legged tottering and twisted face - is as dubious as the way the play (and the novel before it) treats this character, who is on an uneasy continuum with Forrest Gump.

You see this, not least, in the climatic suicide which is "transcendent" only because the work presumes to know what Fish is thinking at this point, and gives him a suddenly adult, poetic voice in which to articulate his visionary sense of impening, terminal self-discovery.

Treating the brain-damaged as holy fools is just an inverted form of being patronising towards them. The comfort it gives to the undamaged can be gauged by the comfortably compassionate clucks Wyllie's performance keeps eliciting from the audience.

Christopher Pitman and Claire Jones give glowing performances as (respectively) Fish's devoted brother Quick, whose life is shaped by his irrational guilt over the accident, and as sparky independent-minded Rose Pickles, the girl next door who becomes his wife and soul-mate.

Again, though, the crucial scene in which the ghosts are exorcised from the haunted room, by the birth there of this couple's child, sentimentally attributes to the fruit of an all-white union a redemptive power that could only properly derive, given the background, from an interracial one.

For all the moving and nostalgic spirit of community that the production generates, and its beguiling atmospheres, one would still like to see this talented company in a more incisive drama.

Paul Taylor

To 3 Oct, 0171-836 3464. A version of this review appeared in later editions of Wednesday's paper