THEATRE: The Undertaking, Albany Theatre, London

Philip Osment's tangled web of recrimination in the wake of an Aids death is under-directed, under-edited and under-achieving
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The Independent Culture
The Undertaking, a new play by Philip Osment, concludes with camply costumed obsequial rites. A group of his close (and not so close) friends form a line by the edge of a cliff on a remote island off the Irish coast and, to the strains of a Mahler tape, toss the ashes of Henry, a gay man who has died of Aids, in the direction of America. There is no wind that day, so the deceased, while on their minds and lips, does not end up in their hair and eyes. That's a rare stroke of luck for, up to this point, their mourning has not been granted room for much dignity.

If this were a TV movie, Henry's estranged mother and his one surviving gay lover would meet and, after a frosty, tense start, progress through a course of mutual understanding that would leave them both with higher diplomas in emotional maturity. The Undertaking is at a far remove from such a formula. Henry's relations are barely mentioned, and in so far as this ensemble play can be said to have a central character, it's Michael (Liam Halligan), an ex-lover who now lives in a sexless sort-of-marriage to their joint friend, Sheila (Patricia Ede).

Michael flunked out of taking any responsibility for Henry during his final illness, though this did not stop him from picking up Eamon (John- Lloyd Stephenson), the young, black male nurse who was in attendance. Peeved at the presence of this camp hunk on their expedition, Henry's last (now HIV positive) lover, Howard (Derek Howard), also suspects that Sheila exercised her influence on the dying man to make Michael his main beneficiary.

Osment's last two plays (The Dearly Beloved and What I Did in the Holidays) have prompted comparisons with Chekhov for their ability to orchestrate group scenes where everyone is pulling in contrary directions, and for their sharp but unjudgemental eye for the tragicomedy of human behaviour. The Undertaking, though, has the feel of something that should have been pushed through further drafts. A tell-tale sign is that Osment, instead of plunging straight to the heart of the story, doodles at the outset with needless scenes of desultory preparation for the trip. The dialogue establishing the tangled web of relationships and the complicated biographical background sounds like something that has been written as much for the author's benefit as ours; neither the script nor James Neale-Kennerley's under-directed production gives the characters enough to do during this part.

There's one very funny outdoor scene in the second half where all the characters are under the influence of Ecstasy, except for Michael's straight farmer brother Patrick (Gary Lilburn), whose mix of bemusement, tolerance and prejudice at homosexuality is nicely captured. Here the material has the space to breathe. But there's an awkward distribution of emphasis again towards the end with a soap-opera rush of wounding home truths, revived resentments and uneasy reconciliations. We learn that Michael, as a little boy, stoutly defended his brother from a paternal beating; what turned him into a slippery, shier-away from responsibility remains, however, a bit of a mystery.

To 23 March. Booking: 0181-692 4446

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