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Theatre Review: Join the caravan of love and war


Bush Theatre, London

Kelly is more than a trifle suspicious. She and Mick are barely speaking to one another these days and she reckons he only married her because she was pregnant. All of a sudden, he's doing sit-ups. He must be seeing someone else. "He wears Escape for Men. Now what does that say?" Her suspicions are well-founded. We've already seen him at full throttle with Kelly's young teenage sister Kim. His idea of foreplay was to unzip his flies and smother her with mint-chocolate chip ice-cream. You could call it being in flagrante delickto.

When Gemma Bodinetz directed Simon Block's Chimps earlier this year, designer Bruce Macadie came up with a marvellously convincing cross-section of a North London terraced home. Still on the domestic front with Helen Blakeman's black comedy, their focus is even tighter. When Aristotle defined the importance of the dramatic unities of time, manner and place, I don't imagine he had a caravan in mind. And don't start thinking deserts, merchants and camels: we're in a North Wales trailer park outside Rhyll.

As far as dim Kim is concerned, the place has nothing to offer but "a load of sheep and one-arm-bandits", but her mother, the newly-widowed Josie, is taken with the place and dreams of a sunny future of regular holidays there. But not everything goes according to plan. Birth control is not big on her daughters' agendas and "action" turns out to have consequences. Meanwhile, the arrival of Bruce, a benign docker calmly and convincingly played by Pip Donaghy ("you went with someone called Bruce," shrieks a horror-struck Kim) signals a series of turns in the family's fortunes. When he loses his job in the 1995 dockers strike, Kelly wakes up to politics.

It's not just the political background which suggests that Blakeman could have a bright career writing Brookside. Her cast-list for this, her first full-length play, is composed of mouthy, working-class scousers with more than its fair share of scallies. Soaps are constricted by (and out of) tightly-knit groups who are put through every imaginable permutation and while there are no long-lost love-children, there's internecine warfare aplenty as everyone starts forming dangerously unsuitable attachments over the course of two years.

The spiteful spats and full-blown rows are colourfully conveyed in often comic language built out of the snappy shorthand of families in love and war, but despite an acute ear for dialogue, Blakeman leaves too little to the imagination. The other major weakness is that of structure. The workings of the plot become increasingly contrived. Individual scenes and alliances make often powerful sense while you watch, but the big picture grows more and more unlikely. A diagram of who has slept with who on EastEnders would give you a similar result.

The problem with this kind of writing on stage is that unlike a soap, it has to have theatrical shape, not least in that it has to end. merely stops as Josie overhears a nasty new plot developing.

Bodinetz orchestrates her actors very well, building up climaxes with a sure touch and Emma Cunniffe is extraordinarily good as Kelly. Her journey from a carefree adolescent filled with make-up and men to a young woman in crisis - betrayed and betraying - lifts the material on to a different plane.

To 13 Dec. Booking: 0181-743 3388