Theatre Review: Defence mechanisms

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Nabokov's Gloves

Hampstead Theatre, London

Nick is a self-styled Mr Silky Drawers, a silver-tongued, smooth-talking bastard: he's a barrister. Lawyers will say anything to win, persuasion is their profession and even the play's cunning autobiographical opening address turns out not to be what it appears. And as the false front is pulled away, you're immediately intrigued.

Whether it's Murmuring Judges, Witness for the Prosecution or Crown Court, the legal profession makes rich theatrical pickings. It's packed with people making almost indecent earnings via the gift of the gab. What more could a playwright want? Strong ideas for starters, and lawyer-turned- playwright Peter Moffat isn't short of those.

The plot hinges on whether or not Nick will compromise his marriage and career by having an affair with a client, but Moffat is actually investigating the emotional hypocrisy of the legal profession, women in a man's world, class, and in particular, the childishness of male bonding. A play about the professional classes is an extremely astute response to a Hampstead Theatre commission and it's very professionally done. The well observed acting feels authentic and director Ian Brown's smooth production on Robin Don's spare and supremely elegant white set neatly clarifies the dialogue. Everything, down to the Steve Reich music between the scenes, is polished and artfully contrived. Which is precisely the problem.

It's just too self-conscious. Moffat is very good on the callous boyish banter of legal bigwigs but he allows his characters to mouth aphorisms at a drop of a hat, which becomes both portentous and curiously uninvolving, leading to too many set-piece debates. Moffat's defence case would state that this is an accurate reflection of so literate a group of people, but the slow rhythm doesn't make for high drama.

He is on the side of the women as he focuses on men's inability to face pain, their closed shop camaraderie and their escape into trainspotterish trivia - ie debates about cover versions, whether The Ronettes or The Ramones recorded a finer version of "Baby I Love You". He also carefully plots in humour, as in Nick's fellow barrister Joe's very funny stereotypical tirade against a Scottish client, while the second act cookery demonstration is a hoot.

David Cardy is wonderfully full blooded as the plain speaking clerk of chambers, the most contradictory and best written role, but the others each play one tune only which paints the actors into corners as Moffat writes his attitudes to the characters into the text. Joe is Nick's weak stooge (despite Dominic Mafham's genial portrayal); Nick's wife Fran - a doctor, ie honourable - suffers, and so on. A tougher director would also have curbed the tendency to over-explain the characters' feelings with exit lines underlining what they've already said.

More fatally, we never see the potential validity of the central marriage because Moffat is too busy telling us of Nick's waywardness. Only once do we see the woman in question, and she appears so strung-out that Nick's infatuation strains our sympathy. The foolishness of his passion may be Moffat's point, but we should still care about Nick's pain - but as the play proceeds through his downfall we become increasingly disengaged. The higher the temperature rises, the more irritated we become with him, and, hence the play.

That's no fault of Greg Wise who is thoroughly engaging as Nick, carefully using his considerable charm and consciously turning on Nick's sick puppy routine when it suits. It is he who carries the ideas which Moffat interweaves like lattice work. Unfortunately, the holes between them are too wide and his good intentions fall through.

To 20 June. Bookings: 0171-722 9301

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