THEATRE / Too choosy: Jeffrey Wainwright reviews The Choice in Mold, plus Hedda Gabler

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The bald brevity of Claire Luckham's title, The Choice, seems to insist upon the clarity of alternatives: this or that. Indeed the play is suffused with binary oppositions all the way down to the choice in question - demanded because of the extra chromosome present on pair 21 in the genetic make-up of Sal and Ray's unborn baby. This genetic quirk means the baby will have Down's Syndrome, and the decision the couple have to make is whether Sal should have the baby or not.

They oppose each other, and as they approach the choice, the play presents a parallel story in which a narrator figure, The Writer, relates the story of her own brother who has grown into adulthood with Down's. Add the riven personality of The Consultant and there is a play which cuts both ways at every point.

The subject is a powerful one and at the crisis of the choice itself, especially in Sally Edwards's performance, it achieves a brief, terrifying intensity. But unfortunately this crucial moment is padded with too much unconvincing characterisation and stagecraft. The Writer, despite Noreen Kershaw's sympathetic efforts, always seems a spare device whose story belongs on the page not the stage. Nor is this stage right, for Bill Pinner's faithfully detailed house interior is largely redundant in a non-realist piece that frequently moves out of it.

Luckham seems undecided about The Consultant - is he a caricature of professional power or a man genuinely and deeply struggling in his own mind? Ray (Paul Herzberg) is a spry hunk whom director Annie Castledine has continually springing on to the furniture to display how pro-life he is. His paeans to Sal, baby and the universe are so sodden with platitudes - 'It's the life in you I love' - that they are frequently embarrassing. What does stay positively in the mind is the observation that this choice presents itself as anything but an 'informed', clear dichotomy, but comes 'steaming with emotion'. Here, artistically, it also comes trailing a cloud of inconsequence. 'Choice' is the exalted principle and final, disastrous imperative of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. In Joseph Blatchley's new production at the Royal Exchange, Geraldine James conveys every impression of a woman in imperious, if capricious, command of her life. Her gorgeous cream skirts swirl elegantly and sexily across the dull boards of the marital home. She can be adroit, obdurate, coquettish, cruel. Yet in truth she might as well be chained to the furniture. She is, in the maid Berte's unelaborated remark, a 'poor thing', and the measure of James's fine performance is the way she increasingly makes us see all these arrogant curvets as the beatings of restless desperation.

In other respects the production is able rather than inspired, with Dave Hill's Judge Brack glisteningly dark if, like Phillip Clifford's Tesman, a touch too broad. The final, tragic choice is, however, so stunningly well- taken that the show is worth it for the last five seconds.

'The Choice', Theatr Clwyd, Mold (0352 755114). To 30 Oct - 'Hedda Gabler', Royal Exchange, Manchester (061-833 9833). To 13 Nov