Theatre: The Coice Orange Tree, Richmond

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The Independent Culture
Tests show that the baby you are carrying has Down's Syndrome. Do you go ahead with the pregnancy or do you opt for an abortion? That is the cruel choice facing the couple in The Choice. First seen in Salisbury in 1992 and winner in the Best New Play category of that year's Regional Theatre Awards, Claire Luckham's emotionally wrenching drama receives its London premiere in a superlatively acted production directed by Dominic Hill at the Orange Tree.

The couple's story is mediated to us by the Writer (Jenny Howe), an autobiographical figure who comments on the action and punctuates it with an honest account of her own relationship with a slightly older brother with Down's Syndrome. She recalls, for example, how, when she was a small child and sent back to school with him from the tropics, her sibling was "like a part of me that would trip me up when I least expected it". He would get into scrapes that would make the school authorities angry and leave her with the feeling that it was her fault.

From this intense identification, through the guilt of the separation that was imposed on them, through her anxious attempts as an adult to give him a perfect time with her family when he came on holidays from his sheltered home, the Writer brings the story up to date with slides of the brother's 50th birthday party and news of the mutually supportive relationship, tolerant of imperfection, that has been forged between them.

The fact that this narrative unfolds concurrently with a drama which takes the couple from the elation of newly-discovered pregnancy through to the trauma of an abortion unwanted by the father, cannot help but colour our responses to the issues raised by that drama. Luckham is sympathetic towards the couple - Charles Simpson's Ray, who is all keyed up with a severe case of womb envy, and Sal, whose conflicting feelings about bringing such a life into the world are beautifully evoked in Eve Matheson's excellent performance. What makes the play less than even-handed is the way it presents the Consultant (wonderful Robert McBain) in charge of their case.

It would have been possible to write a play in which such a medic did not have an emotionally vested interest in advocating abortion. But The Choice has, you feel, an emotionally vested interest in his having one. Hence he's characterised as a conceited but self-hating man, who has come to think of his patients as problems for which there are solutions rather than as people. In a highly unprofessional outburst, he reveals that he and his wife have decided against children and that he thinks it "perverse" in an over-populated world to give birth to defective infants. You wonder what the effect would have been if Luckham had created a doctor with an equally personal and illicit right-to-life agenda.

This is an immensely powerful play, though, for all its not-so-hidden bias, one of those works which you know will live with you for a long time.

n To 27 July. Booking: 0181-940 3633

PAUL TAYLOR

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