Theatre review: Throwing the baby out with the bath water

Goodnight Children Everywhere Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon
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World war, a family sundered by evacuation: a cynic might argue that a dose of the above would have been the making of Chekhov's maundering three sisters and their brother Andre. But it's the un-making of the three sisters and their younger brother in Goodnight Children Everywhere, Richard Nelson's latest exercise in the neo-Chekhovian. The play is unveiled now in an involving, beautifully acted, if occasionally over-emphatic, traverse production by Ian Brown at the RSC's Other Place.

The awkward interstices between cultures (Americans abroad, ex-pat Brits in America) have long been Nelson's imaginative terrain. Here, this theme still exerts its tricky pressures, but centre stage is increasingly ceded to a story of brother/sister incest that feels, to my taste, like a melodramatic upping of the stakes, some way in excess of what is warranted by the expertly captured tensions in this intricately dysfunctional family.

Set in 1945, the drama is triggered when 17-year-old Peter (a subtle study in dazed emotion from the slightly too-old-looking Simon Scardifield) returns to his sisters after six years in Canada. Both of their parents died during the war. Peter left England a boy; he comes back a handsome young man - all the more irresistible because he brings out the mother in women as well as sexual desire. Or rather he does in his pregnant, unhappily married sister Ann, who remembers bathing him as a child. As he sits in the tin tub before the fireplace, nursing an erection improbably brought on by talk of dead parents and days gone by, Ann soon can't resist giving him (so to speak) a hand.

I had one problem with this strong incest strand: I never fully believed in it. This is no fault of Cathryn Bradshaw, who, as Ann, gives a truly superb performance - one moment, she's Wendy in Peter Pan, bossing her brother like a pertly reproving child-mother, the next she's shaking with troubled desire. It's the unnerving seamlessness Bradshaw brings to these shifts that is so good. And surrounding that story, there's a splendid density of deftly imagined family reminiscence and detail. The re-opened wound of emotional business, unfinished because of the war; the queasy balance between the revived unguarded horseplay of childhood and the modesty proper to adulthood; the love-hate amongst siblings evacuated to different homes (Wales, Alberta) and now prepared to hit one another with brutally revealed truths - all this is painted in with an odd mix of delicate and bafflingly crude brush strokes.

As Betty, Sara Markland, with her hysterical girlish giggles, poised between the madcap and the mad, and her air of desperate deprivation, gives unsettling depth to what could be too neat a Freudian diagram: the girl who puts men off by too nakedly needing a replacement for daddy. And Robin Weaver's Vi shows you the vulnerability under the assumed carapace of actressy worldliness. But while, in theory, it is just about possible to credit that the besotted Ann would dwell scarcely at all on the baby she is carrying or find her impulses checked by it, in practice this feels like a hole in the play rather than a hole in a woman who already has a baby in her grown-up brother. Very uneven; very absorbing.

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