Theatre: Two into one doesn't go

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The Independent Culture



WRITING A one-act play is as fast a ticket to obscurity as crafting a short story. However good it may be, it doesn't amount to a full evening's entertainment. The recent, inspired pairing of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound with Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy showed the answer: make up a marriage of true minds. And that's exactly what Carol Metcalfe tries with her surrealist double bill of Stoppard's glorious one-act comedy After Magritte with Michael Nyman's chamber opera, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

The cunning link is Rene Magritte, one of whose images adorned the paperback edition of Oliver Sachs' original case-study of a man suffering from aphasia, so that while his brain could register salient features of an object he could not comprehend the total picture, its "meaning". As in some of Magritte's paintings, the "reality" of an image is contradicted by a "real" explanation.

In Christopher Rawlence's libretto, a singing Sachs observes the seemingly surreal behaviour of his music teacher patient who has developed a musical way of coping with an increasingly mystifying world. He sings his way through basic tasks such as dressing and eating, which suggests that this story is ripe for musical adaptation. But Nyman's signature is more rhythmic than harmonically or melodically theatrical. The music doesn't appear to develop traditionally, the orchestral writing is too repetitive and emphatic and the vocal writing is too tense to release itself into operatic shape.

Metcalfe's awkward production does the piece no favours, with the pit- band swamping the singers. The teacher is written for a wide-ranging baritone, but James Meek struggles to project at either end of his voice, thus sapping this libretto-heavy opera of its import. You know there's something wrong when the most dramatically effective moment is when his character proves his musical credentials by singing "Ich grolle nicht" from Schumann's Dichterliebe.

There are similar problems of punch and dramatic punctuation in After Magritte, but none of the faults is Stoppard's. On paper, his rarely performed but supremely well-crafted comedy is hilarious. He takes a deliciously surreal opening image: a man in waders and evening dress fixing a light- bulb on a counterbalance with a fruit bowl, with his wife on all fours in full Come Dancing rig, his mother lying prone on an ironing-board and a policeman staring in through the window. With ruthless logic he then provides a "real" explanation for the entire mind-boggling scene and each character's deliriously funny, conflicting interpretation of the bizarre sighting of a blind, one-legged footballer.

These rich comic opportunities are, alas, largely missed by a cast who fail to mesh. Metcalfe's poorly paced and overblown production gathers only intermittent laughs as it rides roughshod over Stoppard's perfectly placed wit. An evening of good intentions and dashed hopes.