Detached, or just a drag?

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Mother Courage and Her Children

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

While it's true that Brecht himself described the ideal audience stance towards his "epic theatre" model as one of detached, critical reflection as opposed to any sentimental engagement, there's only so much detachment a play can take before cerebral shades into wearisome. With its heavyweight duration, its desolate anti-war satire and its episodic, deliberately repetitious structure, Mother Courage presents a forbidding dramatic challenge, and while Kenny Ireland and his 14-strong cast, headed by Maggie Steed as the eponymous black-marketeer, go at it with laudable vim and determination, their efforts are betrayed by an underlying air of having bitten off a mouthful they've yet to get their teeth securely into.

The result, as Steed drags her dwindling brood and battered canteen wagon around the battlefields of the Thirty Years War, is a production (jointly staged by the Lyceum and Derbyshire Playhouse) that too often falters or plods where it should swagger and flow; in which both timing and tone are consistently just that vital fraction off. The narrow range of Steed's expressive dynamics is one central shortcoming, her delivery only rarely extending beyond variations on the theme of redoubtable gutsiness, or gutsy redoubtability (with occasional interludes of semi-catatonia signalling pain or grief), in a performance that, on the whole, falls short of the scale required to encompass her character's contradictions.

With Ireland having decided - unusually - to feature the play's full original quota of songs, Jonathan Dove's score and Jon Beales's musical direction also prove highly problematic, on several fronts. The clean- cut, almost Oliver!-esque feel to many of the arrangements is wince-makingly at odds with the desired effect of dark unease; amplified and non-amplified vocals are mixed with a peculiar lack of grace, and too often when a song begins all action ceases, rather than the two interweaving into anything resembling a single fabric.

On the plus side, David Shaw-Parker as the cannily adaptive, blithely hypocritical Chaplain provides an assured and complex foil to the title role. He is one of the few on stage to seem fully at home in his fictional skin, in both its human and its emblematic aspects. In forceful contrast to his character's survival skills, Deirdre Molloy as Courage's mute, misery-addled daughter Kattrin presents a piteous spectacle of physical and emotional attrition, by the end casting her mother's single-minded pursuit of trade in a monstrous light. Dermot Hayes's big, bold, filmic design does much to expand our sense of the action's dramatic arena, and in this context a good many of Brecht's verbal punches do land smack in the gut - nuggets of bitter philosophical satire that speak with timeless authority down the nearly 60 years since the play's premiere. Certainly not a wasted evening, but a long and disappointingly lacklustre one.

At the Lyceum (0131-229 9697) until April 4 , then at Derby Playhouse (01332 363275) April 9-May 2

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