Theatre Review: Expectations duly confounded

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Hampstead Theatre, London

In declaring that Stephen Churchett's new play is bad, you feel a bit like someone caught in the act of mugging a sweet old lady just as she's setting off to put in a sterling day's work behind the counter at Oxfam. Heart's in the right place, you see. If Churchett's first piece, Tom and Clem, was lucky to sail straight into the West End, is fortunate to make it to any stage, full stop.

The new play is also flattered by the casting. Here, the star is George Cole, but all the moral doggedness that has been this fine actor's stock- in-trade, from the St Trinian's movies to Minder, has had to be ironed out of him. Cole plays Harry, a lovable cove of a Chelsea Pensioner, who gruffly transmits his wisdom about things that should be passed on in life, as commercial forces move into converting the Royal Hospital, his beloved home, into a conference centre. You keep expecting the cast to cluster round and break into a chorus of that gruesome old Clive Dunn hit "Grandad, Grandad, We Love You..."

Trying to salvage the noble word "heritage" from its theme-parky associations is a laudable aim, but the play, which takes place over a year in the gardens of the institution, manages, under Mark Rayment's incompetent direction, to come across as both mechanical and monocular. As in Tom and Clem, the characters are too four-squarely what they represent in the drama's schematic layout, though Gwen Taylor works her usual wonders with the role of May, Harry's fiftysomething daughter.

The enemy is embodied in the shallow, brightly patronising shape of young Ginny (Judy Flynn), who is there to be insensitive on a round-the-clock basis (she even fiddles with her camcorder during the tense Remembrance Day silence that is the play's best sequence), and to be systematically put down by the other characters. She's planning a video that will "Reposition [the hospital] in people's perceptions", but Churchett, in showing her as sincere but completely inept, is determined not to reposition her in our perceptions, having forgotten Shaw's wise advice that, in drama, you give the opposition the best arguments.

The play is a string of deliberately confounded expectations: we learn that the lover of Harry's gay son (Tim Pigott-Smith) died of MS and not Aids as, in our prejudiced way, we surmised. This policy, like almost everything else in , becomes, in its own right, wearingly predictable.

To 17 Jan, Hampstead Theatre, London NW3. Booking: 0171-722 9301.