THEATRE / Saving the whale: a drama: Moby Dick

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Like Captain Ahab chasing the whale, Rod Wooden and his crew undertake a mammoth task that is brave and apparently doomed in translating Herman Melville's Moby Dick into stage terms. No one would expect a blow-by-blow adaptation. Rather one hopes for the spirit of the novel recreated in a form that works on stage to build up the terror and scale of the original.

Wooden's script and Gerry Mulgrew's staging are most impressive: there is excellent ensemble playing, very accomplished staging, and some wonderful stage business to mirror the twists and turns of the book. The showdowns between the obsessive Ahab (David Calder) and the Godfearing First Mate (Christopher Hunter) are exciting.

Yet the production fails to thrill, perhaps because no amount of rewriting can overcome the fact that the qualities that make the novel so powerful are virtually impossible to realise on stage. It works by accumulation, description and appeal to the mind's eye to draw you, with Ishmael, away from the shore of sanity. Here you never have the hair-raising feeling that you are peering into the abyss with Ahab.

At the Bush, Richard Cameron's The Mortal Ash is his best play yet. This painfully funny, compassionate comedy goes right to the heart of contemporary Britain as it deals with a family scraping together dignity in the face of hopeless circumstances. Like Miller's Death of a Salesman, Cameron's play shows the agony of moral struggle for people who have little choice, through no fault of their own.

The Wheatley family, getting by on a council estate in Yorkshire, are being persecuted by their neighbours. To begin with we don't know why, but gradually the reason seeps out - father carried on working after his bulldozing job caused an accident. But father sticks to his guns, explaining his moral dilemma in a brilliantly written showdown with his eldest son - or rather trying to explain, since he's a man in whom feelings and words rarely make contact.

This is the heart of Cameron's play, but it is multi-layered and skilfully constructed to keep you guessing to the end. Most importantly, it holds up to the light the lives of people trapped by poverty and lack of opportunity, without patronising them. Cameron's characters have mettle, and he has a fine ear for the squabbles, jokes and silences that make up family dialogue. An excellent cast and Simon Usher's detailed direction make the evening a cracker. SH

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