The Criminals; Lyric Studio, Hammersmith
The Criminals

Lyric Studio, Hammersmith

"Heels" and "missile crisis" are the most likely responses you'd get if you were to drop the adjective "Cuban" into a word association game. Certainly nothing within a million miles of Cuban theatre, about which we English are resoundingly ignorant. If you count the televised scenes of the Pope's open air mass in the Plaza de la Revolucion in January (rock- concert-like crowd reactions and the strange spectacle of nuns hugging Communists as his Holiness demanded an end to the economic blockade), then 1998 has brought two examples of Cuban theatrical culture to our notice. The other was Club Tropicana at the Royal Albert Hall, where the costumes were, on the whole, even flashier.

The chance to get to grips with some serious dramatic writing from that country is provided now by Ian Brown's Backchat Company revival of , an Adrian Mitchell adaptation of Jose Triana's 1964 play, La Noche de los Asesinos. Set in the early Fifties, before the revolution that booted out Batista and swept in Castro at the end of the decade, this work enjoyed a brief period of local acclaim and then, as the new regime grew hypersensitive to any hint of opposition, found itself banned by the Ministry of Culture. The RSC gave the piece its English premiere in 1967.

You can see why it made the powers that be nervous. Set in the emotionally stifling boundaries of a single room, it focuses on a brother and his two sisters who are trapped in an adolescent ritual of rehearsing for (or is it creepily re-enacting?) the vicious butchering of their parents. As the siblings proceed through their twisted role-switching games - now themselves, now imagined visitors, now their hated father and mother - this family, loveless at the top and conditioning the children to the mentality of murderess slaves, is seen as a model of authoritarian repressions.

Alongside Peter Sullivan's Lalo, a strong projection of a young man desperately beating against the bars of his own impotence, Brown's cast fields two real-life sisters (Miranda and Joanna Foster) as Beba and Cuca. Played on a long, traverse set, the production fights hard, with its subjective light shifts, offstage drumming and ecstatic knife-sharpening, to create an atmosphere of charged neurosis and unhealthy interdependence between three people who can no longer distinguish howling love from rancid hatred.

It can't, however, wholly disguise the weaknesses in the play. If you compare with, say, Genet's The Maids, another drama in which a murderess's love-hate for authority is channelled into kinky role-playing rituals, you see how Genet heightens the tension by letting the outside world impinge unnervingly on the hermetically suffocated inner one. Here, for all the frisson of external danger Triana arouses, it's not just the parents who may have died, but the rest of humanity. The drama seems to be unwinding on an endless loop in an existential void, which is odd, given the evident political nuances. Of course, one explanation for the parents' absence is that, realising they'd given birth to a bunch of fantasising neurasthenics, they just decided to move town without telling them.

Paul Taylor