THEATRE: The Dancing Master; BAC, London

First plays, like first novels, are usually safe, domestic, autobiographical affairs. The recent revival at BAC of Christopher Hampton's When Did You Last See My Mother? is a case in point. Two bickering adolescents, contemplating sexual hang-ups and unemployment. BAC's latest offering, The Dancing Master, the first play by actress Aletta Lawson, leaps to the other extreme, encompassing off-stage gang rape in Bosnia, body image, courtly dancing, snatches of opera, long-lost parents, love, lust and lavatory cleaning. If this is autobiography, she has led, as Lady Bracknell put it, "A life crowded with incident."

The one thing you can't accuse her of is lack of ambition. In the course of a bewildering two-and-a-quarter hours, though, one or two other accusations spring to mind.

Lawson's play is set in an exclusive hotel in the Swiss alps but Anita Brookner's lawyers needn't rush down to Battersea to check for possible plagiarism of Hotel du Lac. With the dancing master seen measuring the micturition time of women using the cubicles in the ladies' cloakroom, a refined expression of gentility it ain't. It's more like the hitherto undiscovered first draft of Kafka's rewrite of Fawlty Towers after too much Mogadon.

When not busy with his stopwatch or supposedly winning all hearts with his nimble footwork, the terpsichorean title character is having a long- distance affair with an opera singer by cassette-tape letters and playing Herod in the (mercifully off-stage) Christmas entertainment. Meantime, the mouthy chambermaids squabble and the guests come and go, talking of virtually everything except Michelangelo.

If your dramatic aspirations run to balancing hermetically sealed lives with wider political issues such as the fear engendered by hierarchy or the horrors of a half-sister left behind to be raped in a war-zone women's camp, you had better be in complete command of an iron-clad structure. Likewise, if your writing aims for a European style mix of absurdity and heightened naturalism, you had better be the next Botho Strauss. Lawson, I'm afraid, is neither. Hardly any of the 12 characters on stage are rooted in any kind of reality, which means that no matter how comic or intense their various crises - feeling unloved, helpless or trapped - we simply don't care.

Directing her own script, Lawson does nothing to alleviate the textual problems. Sorkina Tate has danced in Grand Hotel and with Lindsay Kemp which lends her scene with the dancing master (the hard-working but ill- at-ease Patrick Drury) a genuine physicality that is badly missing elsewhere, but what is she supposed to do with the line "You dance like a man but I suspect you make love like a woman"? Sara Hadland goes for broke as Anuena, the chambermaid with attitude, but the imperious Margaret Robertson wins the acting prize hands down. She wisely eschews the sentimentality wobbling about the edges of her tender scenes with the dancing master, her throaty, throwaway delivery ironically pulling you in and making you believe in the hurt and resignation she invests in her character.

The play is shot through with music ranging from La boheme to Chopin preludes via Orlofsky's aria from Die Fledermaus, "Chacun a son gout". Not, I'm afraid to mine. "With so much talent around," a member of the audience asked me on the way out, "why did they put this on?" Over to you, Battersea

To 24 Nov. Booking: 0171-223 2223.

David Benedict

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