THEATRE / The limitations of lunacy: Jeffrey Wainwright on The Man in the Moon at the Liverpool Everyman

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The Independent Culture
CURM (short for Curmudgeonly) Turmoil lives all his life in an armchair with his feet not only planted firmly on the ground but solidly in it, up to his shins in rich loam so as to catch the first stirrings of his longed-for cabbages. Odd, then, that he should be found guilty by 12 good savoys and true and banished to the moon when he has been as stolidly untroublesome to the 'Powers- that-Be' as one of his vegetables. But it is an odd world that Jeff Young creates in his new play (directed by John Doyle), and Curm is actually one of its more common-or-garden characters.

As the play opens, the 'Powers- that-Be' have only just restored sunrise and sunset but have thrown in a little morning dew, thoughtfully dispensed by a spray. The weatherman Strangerain's offered precipitation of carpet dust and plughole hair is less welcome, however. Further discomfiture is visited on the population by the tantalising dissemination of unattainable cooking smells - 'We'll all be craving gammon,' complains Curm's wife Bessie. This world is, in fact, a prison, one rather resembling a back-kitchen in the 1950s, especially if Curm's dreams of toothsome cabbages ever come to pass.

Bessie, 'nee Smiles of a remote parish' (Joy Blakeman), is minded to escape, and begins a confusing journey to the perimeter wall. She is encouraged first of all by Madge Neighbour (Jacqueline Kington), who apparently lives nearby and is 'a dab hand at mysticism'. On the way she converses lengthily with Strangerain, meets a mini-Mother Courage called Totter who tries to flog her an ancient radio and TV - seemingly the quaint entertainment of a bygone age - and a Librarian atop a mobile Tower of Babel built of books that are not allowed any visitors. Presiding over all this from his eyrie behind a desk is the Clerk of Works. Could this be God, and if so why is he wearing an Elvis quiff and a British Rail uniform?

So far, so scatty; and this sublunary crazy-house is memorably visualised by Liz Ascroft's design, and Richard Jones's lights. The perimeter is marked round the three-sided stage by the thinnest of bars, severely downlit, and when Bessie snips them, and they dissolve elastically, the simple moment of liberation is amazingly effective. The mountain of bric-a- brac supporting the Clerk's vantage point and the superb Library are also strikingly realised by a designer whose work is consistently the best feature of the Everyman's productions.

But the engaging nuttiness of setting and character does not stretch its 80 minutes into a play. Jeff Young seems uncertain whether his vision is that of Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Folk of the Faraway Tree. The Clerk's surveillance, the hapless Curm's fate, and the omnipresent heavies of the Demolition Squad are all the stuff of dystopia, but the eccentric assemblage of clutter and character belongs to the genial world of evenings of British rubbish whose patron saint is Spike Milligan.

Nearer home, much of the sometimes versified dialogue comes straight from the School of Scouse Surrealism. Occasionally it takes flight, as in Paul Lacoux's obsessed account of the Librarian's world of silverfish and binder's glue, but elsewhere it is derivative and shows how canonic that style has become. Young's interest in folk-tale, and his aspiration to use it for serious purposes is refreshing in the context of so much tedious, issue-based realistic drama. But his version of how the Man in the Moon came to be ends up narratively obscure and without the gravity it seems to aim for.

Continues until Saturday (051- 709 4776).