Missing Jesus

Arnolfini, Bristol

Q: When is a play not a play? A: When it's performance art. This premiere of a new show by Entwistle, whose previous work has included collaborations with the People Show, and her own Slipper Trips and Fine, treads an uneasy line between the two genres.

With music by Jocelyn Pook and design by Laura Hopkins and Jo Joelson, the stage seemed set for a "Live Art" theatre of sound and image, but there was more than a whiff of the old kitchen sink in what turned out to be a traditional, text-bound work. And as a text, it didn't, perhaps, really work at all.

On a stage-enclosure ankle-deep in feathers stand a shed, a mouldering old armchair and a table with an oven-ready turkey on it. It's a set that could double for a lost Arnold Wesker play set in a Norfolk Bernard Matthews factory, and even the four performers might be made to fit the social- realist frame. Though it's difficult to tell, they seem on one level to be a mother and her three daughters, bickering with each other on Christmas Eve. There are a few wrapped-up presents, lots of dialogue about faith or the lack of it, and a trying narrative tease about waiting for the man whose name is in the title. Of course, it isn't as simple as that: the shed also serves as a nesting-box, a confessional and a kind of Wendy house; the daughters are birds, too, though one of them is a carol singer who also seems to be a fairy on the top of the Christmas tree, or maybe an angel. Whatever you like, really.

Entwistle plays the mother figure, Unsaved, whose lack of faith is continually tested by her happy-clappy brood who can quote chapter and verse at the drop of an ecclesiastical hat (which also gets a look in later on). Taking off, a note in the programme suggests, from a doubling quote by William James (author of The Varieties of Religious Experience), offers on one level a serious enquiry into the psycho-pathology of faith, but - perhaps unfortunately - it's no Once a Catholic'. Though the dialogue and theatre-games (including an entertaining round of charades about the Bible) are occasionally witty, and Entwistle can write well, the play doesn't offer much in the way of visual metaphor for what it wishes to say, apart from a rather tired flying turkey.

Pook's involvement is barely apparent, bar an opening round of her customary baroque, angels-in-the-architecture, music (topped by the beautiful, floating voice of Melanie Pappenheim), and as the music is relayed on tape, with spontaneity reduced to someone pressing play and pause and turning the volume knob up and down, it doesn't have much effect. Though this was the opening game of the season, neither side - the play or the performance - seemed capable of scoring a goal.

Young Vic Studio, London SE1 (0171-928 6363) from 10 to 25 October.

Phil Johnson