Hang on a minute: right-wing man makes unannounced visit to former lover who's much younger and lonely and left-wing, resulting in a ding-dong about values in which the public and the private interweave so determinedly that the play seems to come with its own set of study notes. Sounds familiar? It's just about impossible to sit through Blast From the Past without being reminded of David Hare's Skylight. The comparison, I'm afraid, does Ben Elton's new play no favours at all.
Any writer who can bring a genuinely provocative intelligence and youthful audiences to the West End, as Elton has done with Popcorn, had better be treated with respect. The kindest thing that can be said about Blast From the Past, though, is that it doesn't play to the author's strengths. His Jonsonian forte is for pushing fashionable conceptual fads to a bracing reductio ad absurdum - privatisation in Gasping; the culture of victimhood in Popcorn.
Blast From the Past gets up to similar tricks but, as a two-hander given a resolutely wooden main-stage production by Jude Kelly, it boxes itself into a tight space where Elton's inability to create textured, emotionally convincing relationships becomes a chronic disadvantage. We are asked to believe that 16 years prior to the action, love bloomed at Greenham Common between a teenage hippy and a US fighter pilot. He dumped her, then turns up one night out of the blue.
You don't envy Oliver Cotton as the general or Imogen Stubbs as the Scottish council worker having to animate dialogue, where, even at gunpoint, both people sound like stand-up comedians in their slickly referential garrulousness. In Skylight, the political opposition between the lovers was the complex outgrowth of something painfully intractable in their relationship. Here, the relationship is just the inert excuse for Elton to satirise a world where, from the general's perspective, liberal feminism and equal opportunity have been allowed to take an absurd PC priority over strong government and military effectiveness. "Once a girl would have been proud of seeing a future president's dick," he declares, the script interestingly not having been updated to take account of the fact that Paula Jones came a cropper.
Again, the comparison with Skylight proves damaging. There, you really were brought to understand how the world felt to the right-wing character: it was not wholly unfair of him to suggest that his former mistress loved humanity in general as a way of avoiding the responsibility of loving one person in particular. In Blast From the Past, despite the comic robustness of the general's rhetoric and some neat one-liners, the essential indefensibility of the general's stance can never be overlooked. The play is balanced only in the depressing sense that you can't give a damn about either character.
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700) to 2 May
Paul TaylorReuse content