THEATRE / Semi-detached: Jeffrey Wainwright reviews A Message for the Broken Hearted

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OF ALL the arts in the 20th century, drama has proved the most resistant to the discontinuities of modernism. The reasons for this might be several. The theatre cannot avoid the immediate reaction of its audience; the palpability of its human figures militates against abstraction; it operates in a fixed time continuum with no stopping and turning back and this makes it more difficult for ambiguity to replace narrative. Moreover, the development of film and television, and the seemingly inevitable hegemony of cinematic realism, has reinforced traditional conventions in drama as in no other art. Among the theatrical exceptions, Beckett fills the space with language, dance and performance artists with physical excitement and virtuosity.

But this is not to say that dramatists have not been recurrently dissatisfied with the artificial order of plots, and the legerdemain which puts a 'real world' before an audience, and Gregory Motton must certainly be among them. In A Message for the Broken Hearted, being premiered in the Liverpool Playhouse Studio's stimulating 'The New Works' season, he gives us a series of deliberate disappointments. The play focuses upon a love triangle: the oafish, unkempt Mickey (Kevin McMonagle) holds both Linda (Rose Keegan) and Jenine (Samantha Holland) in thrall despite their fragile refinement and his casual indifference towards them.

Linda's crusty father (Morris Perry) threatens protection, but he is both intimidated and indistinctly complicit, a weak figure now who cannot 'see past my own failure'. In 10 or so short scenes, Motton plays a series of variations with this quartet, though the forward narrative action consists of little more than Mickey's departure and return.

The main disappointment we are offered is the absence of any depth to this situation and its characters. All is deliberately flat with only hints and fragments of their histories - Jenine's mental illness, Linda's abortions. Mickey is especially enigmatic: all we know about him is he has a Scots accent. Kevin McMonagle gives him a wide-eyed, bemused comedian's manner, and except for brief, sudden rages and stagey fainting fits he is a cipher of insensibility. This, we must assume, is the source of his petty power.

This flatness is taken up in the whole mode of Ramin Gray's production. In what is a knowing nod to naturalism, Nigel Prabhavlkar's set uses a solid front door and flats, frequently changed behind an am-dram curtain. The acting too is mainly under restraint, as though none of the uncomfortable conflicts is really happening. Even when Jenine, the most tortured character, offers a rinsed animal organ and says, 'I have been washing my heart', Samantha Holland pushes the words through a well-bred stiff-upper lisp. Since we are not to be seduced by eloquence or wit either, detail of phrasing is vital and Rose Keegan's subtle variations of intonation are notably skilful. With her cascade of red hair, the mobile expression of this remarkable-looking actress accounts for most of the visual interest of the evening.

What, I think, we are meant to see are stripped collisions of power and vulnerability. Motton's two-dimensional presentation aims both to strike through the mask of realism and dispense with psychology or politics' pretensions to understanding. But the reduction is too great. We have discontinuity and ambiguity but no resulting intensity. On the page, at least, Motton's other work looks to have plenitude of language and character, but here too much is bleached out. If the complacencies of realism and the repetitions of social problem drama are to be rejected we must have something else.

Continues at the Playhouse Studio, Liverpool, until March 27 (box-office 051-709 8363)