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Theatre: Down in the Basement, something is stirring

'The Mother, Her Son and His Witch'

New Vic Basement, Bristol

DEEP in the bowels of the Theatre Royal, Bristol Old Vic has added another venue to its main house and New Vic Studio. The former barrel store is known quite simply as the Basement. A simple name for a simple venue: some free-standing chairs and a few spotlights set up in a black, black room.

So black, in fact, that arriving in the Basement is less like entering a theatre and more like commencing a sensory deprivation experiment. The mind-cleansing involved in finding your way in utter darkness is, however, a vital ingredient. As the Basement's performances are staged at lunchtime and at 10 o'clock on a Friday and Saturday night, there is a risk that the audience's brains will continue churning over their work or social worries - and with a play only 50 minutes long, there's no time to let them settle in gradually. This is the fast-food of the theatre business. The "birthing canal" entrance requires punters to leave their worries at the door, and enables them to focus on the performance right from the start.

With this subterranean (and somewhat claustrophobic) venue, the Old Vic is seeking to provide a testing ground for new writers and performers, as well as responding to the boom in pub theatre. It is, if you like, a Cottesloe for Bristol.

Now well into its second season, it offers stripped-down theatre in stripped- down surroundings. It also offers the dubious pleasure of having the audience on both sides of the stage, facing one another across the dramatic divide. This can be a cause of irritation to some, distracted by the flickering moonfaces opposite. But it is a boon for a theatre critic seeking to assess audience response without craning one's neck or furtive sidelong glances. Next time you see someone looking shifty in a theatre, remember it's probably just a reviewer.

With a line-up featuring an alcoholic father, a religious mother who exchanges smouldering glances of suppressed lust with her Catholic priest, and a son who finds homosexuality through the Church, The Mother, Her Son and His Witch starts out as a story pace Jimmy McGovern done in the style of Harold Pinter. But then the plot veers off into a Kafkaesque tale of modern witchcraft, sacrifice and identity to leave the audience with a lot more to chew on than their usual lunchtime fare of a cheese and pickle ciabatta.

Writer/director Paul Ryan has undoubted talent, when he lets it show. When they are not stylised, his writing and his direction are gripping and engaging, with a use of short scenes which speed the plot along in a fashion more familiar from film and television than the theatre.

Unfortunately, a large proportion of the play overuses Pinterian pauses and brief meaning-laden phrases, delivered with intense looks. This leaves one with the feeling that the actors are speaking in quotation marks. It is when Ryan allows himself to slip away from this linguistic minimalism that his talent shines through, as the dialogue becomes a blurring, fascinating cascade of Freudian slips, word associations and verbal echoes.

There is a delight in playing with language in an effervescence of verbal theme and variation. It is here that Ryan's strengths lie, and it is a shame he does not exploit them more fully. Instead, the play ferments too much in the telegraphese of unspoken feeling which is the style of choice for virtually every mediocre contemporary playwright. If Ryan can break away from this and forget everything he's learned about Beckett, he has the potential to rise above the pack and be a very good writer indeed.

And in this way the Basement is fulfilling its brief. As an environment in which talent can take its first faltering steps and make its mistakes without the need to be boosted as "the next big thing". A chance to hone and polish one's style and one's voice before having to go head-to-head with the Mark Ravenhills and Patrick Marbers for the title of 'Best Young Playwright of his Generation'.

For those who like gardening metaphors, the New Vic Basement is a cold- frame for the green shoots of young talent. Now, let's watch Paul Ryan grow into a great big marrow.