THEATRE / The Fringe: Families, and other animals

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The Independent Culture
Such a functional family,' remarks one of its members as his whoring child-abuser of a father lies dead, his alcoholic mother pukes up behind the chaise- longue, his morphine- addict granny listens from upstairs and his younger brother refuses to sign the paper which will safeguard the family fortune.

The frightful Southern family in David Beaird's 900 Oneonta could be read as a metaphor for America: it has achieved wealth and power but at a terrible cost. It makes for a thumping good melodrama of the pre- Chekhov variety. Nothing that can be said using four- letter words is said using more; nothing that can be screamed is ever spoken. The acting is first rate and the writing watertight, but the no-holds-barred approach is wearing without being illuminating. It does not inspire hope.

Not so with Anthony Neilson's wild and wonderful The Year of the Family. Here is another playwright who directs his own work and applies brutal shock tactics in a pitiless deconstruction of the dysfunctional family. Each of the tortured souls paraded before us is desperately seeking Daddy: Claire has found a doting substitute and taken him as her lover; crazed sister Fliss is fashioning one for herself, Henry Higgins-style; while sadistic Sid is on a pitiless mission to punish his for desertion.

For once no blame is cast on teenage or single or working mothers, and under the very nose of cruelty and manipulation, compassion creeps in. Each character is forced to acknowledge that, while the roles we have inherited no longer fit, new ones can and must be assumed.

Neilson provides mute images instead of exposition, torrents of words where you expect silence, and jaggedly unpredictable humour everywhere: the result is exhilarating.

The deconstructing that goes on in Stephen Plaice's Trunks is quite literal, taken from the true story of one Tony Mancini, acquitted of the murder of his common-law wife Violette Kaye, a prostitute whose body was found in a trunk. Capitalising on his notoriety, Mancini became an end-of-the-pier entertainer, sawing ladies in half, but years later confessed his guilt. Alison Edgar's stylish production boasts two splendid performances from Ruth Burton as the deceased Vi, and Gregor Truter as the odiously compelling Mancini. The story offers macabre possibilities for a playwright, and though Plaice has limited himself to a straightforward reconstruction of events, the play culminates with a truly impressive sawing in half.

'900 Oneonta', Studio, Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (081-741 2311). 'The Year of the Family', Finborough Theatre, London SW10 (071-373 3842). 'Trunks', BAC, London SW11 (071-223 2223)

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