Theatre review: A family at sea

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Bush Theatre, London

We're inside the Bush Theatre waiting for the start of Hilary Fannin's . On a darkened set of the kind of 1970s home that was a shrine to Leatherette, a spotlight draws the eye to a primitive transistor radio. The make, you can't fail to see, is Bush. A witty piece of self advertising as this theatre - a major, internationally recognised centre of new writing - launches its 25th-anniversary season.

The play they have chosen for the kick-off fits the bill well, a first work by an actress/dramatist with an idiosyncratic voice. Just quoting some of its lines out of context will demonstrate Ms Fannin's acute ear for the unwittingly ridiculous pronouncements of the socially dissatisfied. "She makes her Christmas cake in August. She doesn't need a `profile' ", or "only people with outdoor lavatories go to Butlins", or "you should have thought of that before you went offering yourself as a chalice for their genes". Her structural abilities are not yet quite as good.

In a delightful production by Mike Bradwell, takes us into the bailiff-threatened Dublin home of Mamie Brazil (Ruth Hegerty), a faded chanteuse making a last-ditch effort to revive her career and hold on to the house. A cardboard cut-out in a white naval uniform is the sole reminder of her absent sailor husband. This object is fiercely protected by the youngest family member, Steph (Viviana Verveen); her God-fearing earnestness is in sharp contrast to her older sister (Emma McIvor) who may be pregnant by a Protestant, and her embattled, rifle-toting grandmother who would shoot at the Christian deity were he unwise enough to appear in her presence.

There are some sticky patches. This off-beat family's scorn for the conventional widower who offers to marry Mamie and bail them out is more alienating than you feel Ms Fannin could have bargained for. True, the presumptuousness of his position (thinking he has a right to Mamie because he has waited until she is "past it") is eventually spelt out. But it needs to be worked in earlier to stop you wanting to wash your hands of the entire clan. Nor is the process by which the fish-gutter son (Ben Palmer) begins to go the way of his father well scripted.

Where the play scores is in its quirky, comic understanding of the psychology of people who aren't at home at home and who, because of class and religion, can't be comfortable in any of the limited alternatives. In the second half, the wars of the home are lit up and become a brief vision of the phosphorescent seas. As Steph declares, after nearly perishing in the Butlins swimming pool, "Why drown in four feet of chlorine when the world contains oceans to do it in?"

Booking to Nov (0181-743 3388).

Paul Taylor

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