What the Heart Feels Orange Tree, Richmond

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What the Heart Feels, Stephen Bill's new "state of the nation" play opens in 1982 in a prosperous suburban garden where, to mark May Day, a couple are putting on a tableau vivant in celebration of the heroic struggle of the Russian people during the revolutionary years at the start of this century.

Excuse me, I think I must be hearing things: they are putting on a what? Well, it's true that tableaux vivants in honour of Russian peasants were somewhat few and far between in middle class English gardens in 1982, but we are just lucky to have touched down on the site of one of the rare examples. Or rather very unlucky indeed. This initial gathering gives a pretty fair warning, though, of the stagey contrivance and resounding human hollowness that scupper this deeply disappointing play.

Unfolding over a period of 11 years at other well-populated parties and functions in the same home, the piece attempts to show how the private lives of the central well-heeled socialist couple and their friends and neighbours are affected by and reflect the shifting aspirations, principles and values during that time.

There's certainly potential for interesting drama here. It starts with the group deciding to block the planned demolition of the old brewery in their small town in the hope of turning it into an art centre. As the years pass with the project still unachieved, there's a division of temperament and strategy between Paul Shelley's rich smoothie Peter, who represents unlovely effectiveness at the cost of compromise and expediency, and Stuart Fox's bolshie, long-haired Ian, who represents the sort of principledness that is so keen on keeping its hands clean that it has become a self-regarding end in itself. The conflict is complicated by the fact that Ian idolises Peter's attractive blonde wife and mother-of-five, Anne (Julie Peasgood), who, in the course of the drama, rebels against her role as the smiling, saintly facilitator with no identity or wants of her own.

The evident enjoyment of the people sitting around me indicated that, for them, Bill's intentions are fulfilled. But I found the play a torture to sit through. For a start, it gives you nothing to like or admire in either Peter or Ian. It offers an idiot's refresher guide to the contentious issues of recent history rather than, as it should, surprise you into having new or fresh human insights into these problems. The characters often talk in the conversational equivalent of the proverbial newspaper boy's "extra! extra! Titanic sinks" and Sam Walters' direction only exacerbates the weaknesses.

For example, a severely crippled boy is wheeled centre-stage while his parents (one of whom is wearing a Yogi Bear costume) have a public row in his presence about the ethics of raising money for him through charity as opposed to sticking, like good socialists, with the health service. And, at the end, as a little girl looks at the corpse of her mother, self- drowned in a pond full of possibly killer algae, Walters does not seem to think that her grandmother would instinctively rush across to shield and comfort her. What another daughter had said of her mother's bright social manner applies to much of this play and production: "It's so false, it's embarrassing"n

To 23 Nov. (Booking: 0181-940 3633)