THEATRE / Pat hates: Paul Taylor on The Madness of Esme and Shaz

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The Independent Culture
A holiday in Greece did the trick for Shirley Valentine, who, with a little help from a local waiter, rediscovered her identity and fell in love again with the whole idea of living. A Greek beach also provides the hopeful, idyllic terminus for Sarah Daniels's new play at the Theatre Upstairs, but where the title characters in The Madness of Esme and Shaz are concerned, it would, you feel, take more than an ouzo-sun-and-sex cure to put things right. For a start, it's the island of Lesbos this aunt and niece couple have come to; they're carrying all their worldly wealth in bundles of notes in an M&S carrier bag; and they are on the run from less palpable pursuers than the authorities of the Regional Secure Unit where the younger woman has been held.

Before it turns into an unpersuasive version of Travels with My Aunt, a potentially tragic story can be glimpsed from time to time in this piece. Daniels's drama invites you to consider what would happen if a lonely, recently retired, suburban spinster with strong religious convictions (the gold-framed set is shaped like an altar triptych) agreed to provide a home for a niece she has never met, who has spent 13 years in a psychiatric hospital after time in Broadmoor. The situation is further complicated, we learn, by the fact that both women are as they are, at least in part, because of the pattern of child abuse that runs in their family.

Will the lip and provocative behaviour of Shaz (Tanya Ronder), the lesbian, inwardly wrecked younger woman, force Esme (Marlene Sidaway) to confront in herself the damaged emotions her whole way of life has been at pains to suppress? Will her beloved Christianity be exposed as just so many yards of comfort-blanket? Will she be stopped in her tracks by the thought that she has never actually loved anyone but Jesus?

These are devastating questions, but one of the problems of the play is that it gives them an overwhelmingly optimistic slant. After a few tantalising flashes of tragic feeling, Esme is reborn as a feisty, lovable old eccentric. Soon, she's swearing, driving without a licence and buying a replica Browning which, when her niece is reincarcerated, she waves in the face of obstructive authority. Then, after a few comedy escapes, it's a one-way ticket to Lesbos.

The two central performances are finely drawn, but elsewhere in Jessica Dromgoole's production, stereotype figures are acted as such. There's a scene in which Shaz, revealing her original crime, rejects as pat preconceptions the comforting pieties spouted by the aptly named Pat, the right-on, PhD-completing lesbian lover she picked up on a train. It's a problem, though, that this character, like much else in this well-meaning but obscurely patronising work, is far too patly conceived. I mean, where, except as type-establishing shorthand in a play like this, would a person ever come out with such lines as 'Now, take a deep breath of broken ozone layer'?

To 5 March, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London SW1 (071-730 2554)

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