New European Writers

Royal Court, London

A rehearsed reading might seem the most modest form of theatrical life. Director Lindsay Posner and his sublime cast of Liz Smith, Fred Dowie and Eleanor Bron put paid to that prejudice in their (tragically) one- off reading on Wednesday of Werner Schwab's Holy Mothers. Presented in a hilarious translation by Meredith Oakes, this extravaganza of epic bad taste left a minority in the audience rigid with po-faced prudery and the rest of us aching with both laughter and an acute desire to hear/see more of the dramatic legacy of the Austrian Schwab, who died, aged 36, in 1994.

Trying to name the nearest British equivalent of a foreign writer can be as philistine a business as twinning towns. But, apart from Thomas Bernhard, whose exhilarating relentlessness and red-alert nose for closet Nazis are often recalled here, the Brits you're most reminded of are Joe Orton and Alan Bennett. Schwab's trio of old women (all, I think, cleaners) have a similar way of applying genteel language to pre-occupations that, if not exactly lavatorial, never stray much further afield. Except that here Bennett seems to be performing a tango with Rabelais at his most mock heroically cloacal.

With her matchless talent for the kind of comic subversion that bides its time behind a front of simple-minded near-senility, Liz Smith plays the Boadicea of the blocked toilet, a doughty battler against what you might call the Turd Reich. Never happier than when plunging an ungloved arm into the bunged-up bends of the privileged ("Once you've reached down a toilet bowl, soon you are not afraid, and then it's just the same as reaching out to shake someone's hand"), this devout Christian is a legend in her own loo-time. Or so she'd like to think. Switching into interwoven third-person narratives, the play shows how all three women rise above their constricted lives in fantasies of cleansed acceptance (a roguishly grateful populace supposedly plants presents of a tin of goulash and bottles of beer and perfume for Smith's character to fish out of three fetid loos). It ends in potty (if that's the word) floating apotheosis, mayhem and slit throats. You'll never hear anything like this again, more's the pity.

As a curtain-raiser for the full production of Dea Loher's much more serious-minded Stranger's House, Holy Mothers turned out to be a bit of a thunder-stealer. It says a lot for the musicality of tempo and the brooding power of Mary Peate's austere staging that it managed to conquer a by now quite giddy audience. I will write more about Loher's play next week.