Review: A boy's own view of Bosnia

Apocalyptica Hampstead Theatre

From films about the Kray twins to children's books that have earned him the title "The New Roald Dhal", from art exhibitions to stage plays that bring the bric-a-brac of the Baroque to gangster- haunted Bethnal Green - no, you can't accuse Philip Ridley of malingering in the one narrow rut. His latest project - "The Storyteller Trilogy", about the various powers of performed narrative - even manages to hop between theatres (the Hampstead and the National) and to pitch itself at different age groups (children, "young adults", adults).

Apocalyptica, which has just opened in Matthew Lloyd's production at Hampstead, is the one supposedly designed for the oldest of these groups, but speaking as a fully paid up 42-year-old member of it, I felt I was being treated, like the child at the play's centre, to the consolations of seeing horror distanced, shaped, mediated and simplified through fable. And what is right for a shell-shocked child in a war zone can all too easily come across as sanitisation for an adult sitting in the comfort of a north London theatre.

Apocalyptica was inspired by a TV news report from Bosnia which showed a group of refugees taking shelter in a ruined building. A little boy, asked questions by a journalist, was too traumatised to speak and proved to have forgotten his own name. Set in the smoking bombed-out dereliction of Elizabeth Ascroft's bleakly impressive design, the play imagines how a motley collection of dispossessed adults (from Ian Gelder's head-wounded stray soldier to Elizabeth Bradley's excellent, hard-headedly compassionate old lady) might help the boy, who is now alone in the world, to make sense of the moral atrocities he has witnessed. They do so by telling him stories.

The individual tales have strong recurring patterns and preoccupations, involving trips to wizards, the eventual consigning of some falsely alluring object to the camp fire, and the kind of mono-maniacal self-regard which causes epic annihilation. For example, to persuade a randy old hag of a witch to create ever increasingly destructive weapons, a handsome young prince makes escalating sexual concessions to her. Until of course she turns into a beautiful princess and gives him the greatest "weapon" of all - a baby.

No allowance here that, with genes like his father's, this baby might grow up into Saddam Hussein. There's a grating sentimentality, too, in the way Ridley handles the little boy (Callum Dodgson) who, invited by the old lady to decide when each story is finished, is soon outstripping the adults in the depths of his intuitive understanding. From huddled trauma he graduates, with a wishful speediness, to being the star pupil in what feels like a pretty static ethics lesson for all Matthew Lloyd's attempts to make the outer situation spill animatingly into the inset stories.

But none of the characters are individualised: all, regardless of age or status, use the word "fucking" as though their lives depended on it. For a truly adult play about the healing power of stories, go to the Royal Court and see Conor McPherson's The Weir.

Hampstead Theatre, London NW3; box office 0171-7229301.

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