Women on the Verge of HRT, Vaudeville Theatre, London\


Sitting with several thousand Cliff Richard fans recently at the first night of Heathcliff, I fell to imagining a gender-reversed world where - to the smirking amusement of a handful of female theatre critics and a few embarrassed wives - it was me and a horde of hot-flushing men who were racing to the stage at the end, desperate to touch fingertips and teddies with Anita Harris after her sell-out pop Electra.

If a wand could be waved to produce this transposition, the keenest volunteer to do the waving would probably be Vera, the fortysomething Belfast divorcee who is played by the author in Marie Jones's enjoyable but patchy comedy Women on the Verge of HRT. With her friend Anna (Eileen Pollock), this character is on a weekend jaunt in Donegal to see Ireland's answer to Cliff Richard, Daniel O'Donnell.

Cosy, caring and Christian, he's the kind of boyish country musician, who, when he says, "Ladies and Gentleman, remember this. The kettle is always on the boil in Kincasslagh", isn't making an idle pledge. At the start of Pam Brighton's well-acted Dubbeljoint production, there's film footage of the annual jamboree where O'Donnell invites the fans to his home for a cup of tea. The feeding of the five thousand would seem like quite a mild catering coup by comparison, the singer's much-praised ability "to make you feel you're the only one" put, one would have thought, to the stiffest of tests on these occasions.

Vera's enjoyment of the weekend has been severely diminished, however, by the fact that her fiftysomething former husband, despite having "no money, no hobbies, no interests", has recently got married to a girl half his age. It's the biological injustice of it that's galling. Back in the hotel room, Vera rages against a culture where people can't take the idea of older women and sex seriously, hence the fun made of O'Donnell's fans. Jokily interspersed with Celtic songs, the play whisks the women out to Donegal Bay. Here, as dawn approaches, a conveniently magical waiter (Dessie Gallagher) assumes the identities of figures from their lives back in Belfast and Vera decides that the myth of the screaming banshee needs rewriting: "The poor banshee/ Was like you and me/ She just didn't want to lie down and die."

I found it hard to believe that a woman whom Ms Jones, in both her acting and her writing, makes so witheringly witty and mettlesome, would not be thinking in more radical terms than Vera allows herself here. As she bangs on about "lie-down-and-die clinics" and "ugly camps", it would seem that she has sex on her mind to the exclusion of just about everything else except, perhaps, romance. And on that subject, too, her concern is not that the songs themselves offer a distorting simplification of sexual relationships but that she can't as easily imagine herself as the woman in them.

Even granted the locality, the fact that Vera lives in a world where the role of women is rapidly changing gets under emphasised. Certainly, the 25-year-old who has married Vera's husband is no trailblazer. Is it possible that a young woman these days would get hitched to a man twice her age simply as an insurance policy against the fate of her jilted mother? But, then, perhaps one should not underestimate the unreconstructed sexism of a society where, we learn, that men like me who have an all-girl family are known as "sissy pricks"n

To 31 May. Booking: 0171-836 9987

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