Theatre: Round the U-bend

Click to follow
BLOCKED lavatories, visions of the Blessed Virgin and a last-minute beheading are on the menu in Holy Mothers, a epic of bad taste by the late Werner Schwab, Austria's answer to Joe Orton and Alan Bennett.

If your idea of a good night out is listening to three old women rabbit on about poo and related matter(s) for 90 minutes, then this is just the play for you.

"So many times I've asked myself, why does mankind have to have a bum?" muses Valerie Lilley's lugubrious Erna, who has pious designs on a God- fearing and teetotal butcher. All peroxide beehive, bangles and bored superiority, Paola Dinisotti's superannuated sexpot of a Grete can just about face faeces, at any rate when they emerge from her little doted- on dachshund Lydia.

But it's Linda Dobell's retarded Mariedl, grotesquely decked out in "ickle- girl stripy dress and bunches", who wins hands - or rather, arms - down where the laurels of the lavatory are concerned. She has an ability to un-bung the most choked-up loos without the aid of rubber gloves ("the toilet has yet to be blocked that could withstand her").

The play itself dispenses with hygienic protection as it rams an arm into some pretty mucky corners of Austrian life. Grete, for example, can quite casually accuse the former husband who abused her daughter, on the grounds that he had never got over the taste for victory he acquired at the start of the Second World War.

Schwab has a keen nose for the least whiff of Nazism. Not that such pungencies are always subtle here. When a rankled Erne accuses her friend of being a Nazi Hitler whore, Grete retaliates with: "Everyone was Nazi then. And if I'm a whore, you're a nun with a sewn-up twat."

And indeed, after the play's first trick ending, two of the characters are left with a version of that symbol of Austria's furtive social guilt: the body that will have to buried in the cellar.

Wittily designed by Stewart Laing and using a smart translation by Meredith Oakes, Richard Jones's production paces, with flair, the escalation from the talky first scene to the fantasies in the mad party atmosphere of the second (Mariedl imagines a grateful public planting gifts on a tin of goulash and a bottle of perfume for her to fish out of the fetid depths of some loo) and then on to the startling conclusion.

The show here never quite imparts the comic ecstasy it aroused at a one- off reading two years ago at the Royal Court with Liz Smith as Mariedl. But a trip round the U-bend of Schwab's imagination represents an imaginative start to Sonia Friedman's regime at the Ambassadors.

To 3 July (0171-836 6111)

Paul Taylor

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