THEATRE / On life's broad canvas: Rhoda Koenig reviews Declan Hughes' New Morning at the Bush

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The Independent Culture
It looks like an ordinary campsite - realistic tree trucks, leaves strewing the earth. The set designer Kathy Strachan has even provided some entirely real bugs. But, as a young woman in heavy jacket and boots fixes a tent peg, one prop strikes an odd note - a silk scarf knotted, Sloane-style, to the handle of a travelling bag. Its ferocious owner soon erupts from the tent, snapping apart the flaps and scowling like a waterfront madam. Clad in a business suit, flashing jewellery, and brandishing a cigarette, she regards the natural world with such loathing one half expects her to snarl, 'What a dump]'

The discomfited camper is Mary, an Irish travel agent who never goes anywhere, and whose sister, Deborah, has improbably persuaded her to doss down with the creepy- crawlies. 'Mare', as Deborah calls her, makes plain her hunger ('I could eat a farmer's arse through a hedge'), her distaste for the scenery ('It all looks as if it should have Scripture quotes stamped on it'), and her resentment of Deborah's enthusiasm. When the two discuss Deborah's budding photography career, Mary says, with a rictus smile, 'I'd love to see some of your work,' as if the only thing that would please her more would be crawling barefoot over broken glass.

Until this point, New Morning could, save for some of the language, be an episode of the sitcom starring one of Mary's favourite actresses: 'Rhoda and Mary go camping'. But, as the title suggests, Declan Hughes has growth and reawakening on his mind. Deborah has brought the unwitting Mary to the spot where, 20 years ago, their mother died in a car accident. By making her talk about the past, Deborah hopes to free Mary of her numerous guilts and neuroses, which go back to her relationship with their father, a religious maniac who was obsessed with Elvis Presley. Deborah falls asleep, but her inquisition is taken up by a stranger in a ruffled shirt and a crucifix who looks like a combination of the Tupelo thrush and Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Before this night is out, Mary's therapy will be well under way; Deborah, though, will have been through enough to drive her mad.

Lynne Parker's production for the Rough Magic company, brings out all the bitter wit and looming terror of Hughes's play. She is aided by a strong cast, especially Gina Moley, whose Mary clearly believes the best defence is a good offence: as her shell is chipped away, she goes on the attack, lets up, and comes back for more, playing her anger as if it were a fish on a hook. But, though Hughes is good both at bitchy wisecracks and lurid pseudo- poetry ('The vaporous murk is a dark cloak, ma'am,' says the stranger, 'and we beneath it languish, shrouded in confusion'), he's not so good at making us believe that they belong in the same play. The earnest rehashing of childhood traumas seems as implausible for these two tough, clever girls as the weirdness to which they are provoked by the midnight rambler; too much of it seems to proceed from types and formulas rather than life. Though gripping enough while you're watching it, by the end New Morning sounds as if it should be have been called 'Mary has a really bad dream.'

Good Morning continues at the Bush Theatre until 24 April (Box office: 081-743 3388)