Theatre The Miracle People Etcetera, London

'The arrival of a skirt-wearing renegade soldier raises the possibility that the war is a literal realisation of the battle between the sexes'
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The Independent Culture
A woman called Tanks bursts into a bombed out hidey-hole in a city at war clutching the severed hand of her dead child. There she encounters Powrla, who has retreated from the fray with some meagre rations, and whose relative peace is now shattered by her arrival. They comfort each other until their inevitable capture by the enemy. In the labour camp, they help each other in practical ways, sharing water and scavenging for food. The arrival of Erdie, a deserter from the enemy side who is eccentrically dressed in a skirt, raises the spectre of disagreement between the two women. Tanks will not countenance any sympathy for the "evil scum", while Paola's natural desire for reconciliation is confused by her sexual attraction to the soldier.

Maeve Murphy's play is a head-on examination of the morally pertinent question of survival. At what cost is survival justifiable, or even desirable? Powrla (played by Murphy herself) clings to the belief that survival without some fundamental principles of compassionate humanity is not worth it. She refuses to steal food if it means that somebody else starves. Tanks (Trilby James) is more basic in her instincts, but for a whilemodifies her drive to survive out of deference to her friend.

Murphy has chosen to set her play in an abstract place that encompasses every war zone from Bosnia to Nazi Germany. At various points, Murphy tries to find a language of matching universality, hence the expressionistic outpouring of Powrla's prophetic dream sequences. But she is far more successful in the salty, naturalistic dialogue elsewhere, her natural forte.

The main strength of the piece is the forcefulness of its overarching symbolism. When the women first meet, Paola shows Tanks a door behind which lies freedom if only they could figure out how to open it (ignore the fact that in the Etcetera's cramped premises this door is the only entrance for bewildered looking late-comers). Most intriguingly, the unexpected arrival of Erdie (Pat Shaw), the skirt-wearing renegade, raises the possibility that the war is a literal realisation of the battle between the sexes.

Paola ultimately forgives Erdie's betrayal but not Tanks's - a hard-line decision which suggests that hope lies in the ability to cast off prejudiced affiliations, rather than in the blind will to survive at any cost.

n To 28 Jan, Camden High Street, London, NW1. Booking: 0171-482 4857

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