Theatre: Single white cliches

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The Independent Culture

BARBS, A 39-year-old celebrity hairdresser is draped upside down over the sofa in her stylish Glaswegian loft having her toe-nails painted by Brendan, her gay best friend. Time was when there'd be no more here than meets the eye; attractive, lonely, middle-aged woman with partner problems being fussed over by a camp consolation prize. The Nineties twist is that now such a couple may well be trying to make babies together. The syringe of semen waggled invitingly, is fast becoming the staple that the sherry bottle waved at the vicar once was in our drama. Barbs is upside down because she doesn't want Brendan's precious seed to dribble out.

Perfect Days by Liz Lochhead, was a sell-out hit at this year's Edinburgh Festival and John Tiffany's traverse production has now transferred to Hampstead. A strenuous heart warming piece designed to have you brushing away a tear while splitting your sides, the play gives the impression of having been written on a bet to see how many Zeitgeisty angles on motherhood can be crammed into 150 minutes. A series of increasingly predictable duologues in the first half make Siobhan Redmond's marvellous Barbs, who is as garrulous and profligate with the one-liners as a stand-up comedienne, all the more cruelly aware of the ticking biological clock. Her estranged husband (Vincent Friell) reveals that he's impregnated his new 22-year- old girlfriend. Her sister-in-law (Anne Kidd) has been tracked down by her dishy long-lost illegitimate son. But the tragicomic tactlessness of these disclosures is too mechanical to be properly telling.

Barb's own interfering mother, Sadie (Ann Scott-Jones) had the opposite problem; widowed young, she was a single mother at the start of adult life and is comically sceptical about the urge to have children. Having a poke round her daughter's bathroom cabinet, she notes that the tube of spermicidal cream next to the Dutch cap is past its sell-by date and helpfully chucks it out. That joke - like the tea-pouring remark, "I'll be mother" which reliably crops up just at the moment when it would be better to keep mum - is symptomatic of a play where everything seems to have been worked out in advance, robbing it of genuine life, even in the well-handled farce of the second half. Flannery O'Connor once noted that if a writer does not discover something in the process of writing a piece then it's unlikely that others will discover anything in it either. The characters in Perfect Days are moved around like counters in an ingenious board game; they never surprise you into new ways of thinking and feeling about the whole fraught issue of parenthood in an age when procreation has been uncoupled, so to speak, from coupling.

For example, the gay man (John Kazek) is pretty much a cipher. He has recently shacked up with a stripper-gram artiste whom we never meet and whose feelings on the paternity issue are steadfastly ignored until needed for a sterile plot-turn. Not nearly as provocative as Handbag, the Mark Ravenhill play on these themes, Perfect Days left me feeling both entertained and underestimated.

To 30 Jan (0171-722 9301)