Theatre: A merry dance, full of incident but little action

First Night
Like a Dancer

New End Theatre, London

As the house lights dim, the wistful opening strain of Vaughan Williams's In the Fen Country steals across the auditorium, tuning us in to the play's location. Throughout , playwright Barbara Hartridge uses hymns, popular songs and piano tunes to punctuate her 1940s East Anglian tale, but this is no musical. Nor is it some peaceful, rural idyll.

Martha is eking out an existence in a tithe cottage with her rough farm- labourer husband Bob, a teenage son and daughter and "the little 'uns". She's desperate to keep their heads above the poverty line but one morning she unpacks a suitcase filled with hand-me-down clothes and discovers a flapper-style Twenties dress. More music floats in as she clasps it to her body and dreams of her dancing days long gone, worlds away from the drab domesticity that surrounds her. Yet, as she snaps guiltily out of her reverie, we realise that her past not only betokens pleasure, but also secret pain.

Despite all this, the family seem to be muddling along happily until the day when Bob throws his job away in a fit of pride, thus forcing them to up sticks. The first 20 minutes or so are oddly engrossing as Hartridge tenderly paints in the details of her picture of harsh domestic life but, unfortunately, she and her director John Adams cannot handle her own plot.

Over-ripe melodrama swoops in as figures from the past haunt the stage, threatening to expose Martha's dark secret. We learn of a child, born out of wedlock, who has been brought up by an aunt, but the thriller-like structure over-balances everything. Crowded with incident, it's full of activity but lacks dramatic action. The arc of the play sags with unnecessary scenes and the plot revelations are clumsy. Even when the cat is let out of the bag, nothing is resolved, which leaves us with a continuing soap opera. Hence, despite an attempt at a climactic finish, the play stops abruptly rather than ends.

The unforced acting in the principal roles, however, is excellent. Mark Wing-Davey brings weight and a threatening presence to the inarticulate husband and Adams coaxes excellent, truthful performances from Scott Hickman and Philippa Stanton as the children who, tossed between the demands of a violent father and guilt-ridden mother, grow up fast from carefree youth to fearful adolescence. In the pivotal role of Martha, Amelda Brown bravely refuses to sentimentalise her character and steers a sure and effective course, all the more impressive considering the play's lurching tone.

In the premiere of Caryl Churchill's Fen, Brown once gave a memorable performance as another struggling mother, but it's not just that coincidence which lends this production a sense of deja vu. It's as if the atmosphere of Fen has been crossed with the hidden-child plot of Churchill's Top Girls. Sadly, lacks the skill and dramatic imagination of either. Sincerity, effective dialogue and good acting are not enough to keep a play afloat.

To 1 February, New End Theatre, Hampstead, London NW3. Booking: 0171- 794 0022

David Benedict

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