Theatre Review: The way we weren't

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CHILD-ABUSE is, God knows, laugh-free territory, but sometimes details on the outskirts of the subject can raise a bleak smile. Take the case of Gary Glitter, who was jailed recently for possessing pornographic images of children. News reports have indicated that he has been allowed to keep his "trademark wig" on in prison. You would have thought that a man in his circumstances would want to put as many miles as possible between himself and any identifying accoutrement. It just goes to show that some people prefer celebrity plus the likelihood of a beating-up to safety as a sad nobody.

There are no smiles even of this wan variety in Mike Cullen's Anna Weiss. The charity of the incidental, unincriminating detail and of human suppleness is not a part of its dramatic method. It trains its lens on a threesome: the infernal triangle of "victim", hypnotherapist and a man accused of appalling sexual abuse of his daughter. Now 27, the daughter, Lynn (Shirley Henderson), has recovered "memories" of this tragic family history while being treated by the eponymous Anna Weiss (Catherine McCormack). The play dramatises or, rather, melodramatises the eventual confrontation.

No drama worth its salt would turn on the simple veracity or otherwise of these recovered memories, and it's to the credit of Anna Weiss that it refuses to play that game. That, though, is just about the only credit you can accord it.

The set-up offers a wonderful opportunity for a penetrating psychological study of the indicted man. Speaking as the anxious father of three small girls, I have to say I can think of no worse nightmare than of being one day accused of abuse by them. The essence of the nightmare, though, does not lie in the unfoundedness of such an allegation. It lies in wondering what else you can have done to your poor child to lead her to think these things true. There are, after all, other types of abuse, besides the sexual.

Cullen's play gestures towards this area, but is too slavishly indebted to sensationalising symmetries of David Mamet's Oleanna to allow any of the material to breathe. Just as in Oleanna, where a professor is accused of sexual harassment by a PC-demented student, the man here is driven to the point of violence that seems somehow to corroborate the accusation. And blow me down, if it doesn't trigger a complicating memory in the hypnotherapist. The shoddiness of this twist is breathtaking. It comes across not as the final refinement of the play's epistemology but as a form of moral short- termism.

The first night of Michael Attenborough's ragged, uncharacteristically ill-judged production came just after the Evening Standard Awards lunch. I was one of this year's judges - part of a panel that decided, for the first time in the history of these awards, not to give a gong for Best New Play. The drama that did deserve to win was Simon Gray's The Late Middle Classes which, in its delicate treatment of the relationship between a 12-year-old boy and his platonically paedophile piano teacher, handles the subject of child abuse with all the moral responsibility that is so painfully lacking in Anna Weiss. But it couldn't get the award because its craven producers decided not to bring it into the West End, preferring to put on a musical about a boy band instead. It's desperately sad that Gray's play could not find a metropolitan home and that Mike Cullen's meretricious farrago has.

Anna Weiss poses as a short sharp shock, but ends up feeling like a long blunt one.

To 23 Jan, (0171-369 1735)

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper