THEATRE / Trouble abroad: Paul Taylor on Adam Pernak's Postcards from Rome

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The Independent Culture
It's a good job for the travel business that people take no real notice of art: if they did, it would surely go bust. Go on a foreign vacation in fiction and look what happens; either you 'find' yourself more than a trifle fraudulently, a la Shirley Valentine, or it's death in a deckchair in Venice.

Performing the latest variations now on the old Brits Abroad routine is Postcards from Rome, a second play by Adam Pernak. A mere 23 years old, he is the new writer in residence at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the precocious recipient of a clutch of awards (Young Writers Festival, George Devine, etc). This 'bitter-sweet comedy', though, represents not so much an advance as an early hiccup.

Potentially, the most interesting of the five Britons who cross paths in the same Roman hotel is Henry (John Gillett), an uptight 42-year-old solicitor who is in the Eternal City to lay a ghost and to fend off getting laid by a fellow guest. Rome was where he honeymooned with the spouse who was killed years later in an IRA bomb attack on Oxford Street. Ironically, her death occurred on the very day he was due to announce his departure with her friend Anne. Result: a paralysing mix of irrational hatred for the deceased and haunted guilt.

Also retracing the steps of an earlier holiday are an older middle-class couple, Wesley and Maj (Robin Bowerman and Ann Firbank) - except, thanks to Wesley, a pompous, xenophobic control freak, they are doing so with a stopwatch and exhaustive itinerary, symbols of long-standing marital dysfunction.

More than a touch schematic, Pernak's treatment of these three figures sometimes sacrifices subtlety for overbroad humour. The scene in which the insensitive Wesley rabbits on, first oblivious to, then keeping a safe distance from, Maj's dire respiratory attack reminds you of Airplane as much as of Alan Ayckbourn.

None the less, there's more to get to grips with in these people than in Shell and Carol (Beth Goddard and Sue Devaney), the young lipstick-packers from Wigan who, wittingly and unwittingly, help to focus the minds of their troubled compatriots.

In Janine Wunsche's gamely active production, these last two (the one all vague cultural yearning; the other with Wigan written right through her like a stick of rock) make up in instant audience appeal what they lack in dramatic cogency. To flush the secrets of his past from the solicitor, Shell, for example, has to make a precipitate switch from romantic drooler to prying sexual initiative-taker. Even more flimsily, Pernak conveys through likeable, loud-mouthed Carol his teasing, last-minute reversal of values. In a deeply implausible conversion in the Coliseum, she changes from being the comic epitome of the closed-minded Brit abroad to Wigan's Proudest Export, putting Wesley right about the superiority of modern mercy to ancient Roman rigour and sending him off planning a new nuptial start. A pity, though, that the parallel is so trumped-up: that couple's marriage has been a protracted slow puncture, not a gladiatorial contest, and it's clearly beyond repair.

Fay Saxty's versatile, evocative set is the real star, which, with elements like the fragment of ruined column that cheekily swivels round to become the glitzy inside of the hotel cocktail bar, has as much wit as the script.

'Postcards from Rome' continues until 2 April at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (Box office: 0532 442111)

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