Theatre / Overture New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme

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The Independent Culture
Martin Rydall is a self-made man; a man who made himself by making grids and man-holes. This piece of exposition could be described as the signature of his creator, Peter Whelan, in that it exemplifies the detailing that gives depth to the playwright's worlds. Whelan's craftsmanship goes hand-in-hand with a fascination with work, which informed his superb play about the pottery industry, The Bright and Bold Design. In Overture, premiered here in Peter Cheeseman's attentive production, he is returning close to that home- ground, again pondering the relation between utility and beauty. Having sold the ironwork foundry, Martin is set upon re-making himself, this time in the service of art.

The setting is a neglected country house which, together with an architect, Philip, he is restoring to its 18th-century glory with the zest of a boy catching frogspawn. Indeed, the project is itself a dream from boyhood, of the day when, trespassing in the grounds, he caught a glimpse through French windows of a woman in a yellow dress in a music-room. Martin is determined to recreate that room and has even hired the improbably new- ageish, rebarbative Sian (Sara Griffiths) to teach him piano so that he can play the Debussy he is certain belongs to the idyll.

Andrew Neil's Martin has a blustery, scatty charm that can only make us admire his practical energy and eagerness to be reborn. But we soon recognise that there is something unconvincing, even desperate, in his desire to leave the past behind. We notice how his heritage-speak all comes from Alan Rothwell's pursed, self-interested Philip, and, much less subtly, there is the glowering return of his footloose son Ralph (Sean O'Callaghan). He and his brisk, practical sister Aileen (excellent Sarah Mortimer) are aggrieved in different ways at their father from way back and cannot turn over a new leaf lightly. Martin, it seems, is burying pain in his admiration of sandalwood.

Yet, for all Ralph's cries about a house built on cruelty, and his self- laceration at leaving his sick mother in his father's uncaring hands, I was never convinced of Martin's dark nature. Except, however, when he instantly repudiates Aileen when he believes she has betrayed him. Andrew Neil's puckish countenance freezes into a frightening hatred then, and we see how he has willed the ensuing destruction.

This is a thorough play that moves with a restorer's patience and care, but also with his slowness. At its best, it has the texture of a realist novel but the key characters of Ralph and Sian are little more than ciphers. As always with this fine, independent writer, the deliberation of the work is never less than absorbing, but on this occasion, the gleam of discovery is not quite bright enough.

Booking: 01782 717962 To 24 May

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