First Night: Confessional that lacks compassion

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Sleep With Me

Cottesloe Theatre


"THERE ARE some f***s for which a man would watch his wife and children drown in a freezing sea." Hanif Kureishi is evidently very pleased with that sentence for he has now used it in two successive works. It first appeared in Intimacy, the short novel he published in 1998. It resurfaces in , his new play premiered now in an adroitly staged, expensive- looking traverse production by Anthony Page in the Cottesloe. Not that it has taken strenuous shoehorning efforts to get the line in, for there are blatant similarities between the two pieces.

Wedging you inside the mind of a writer of screen adaptations on the night he prepares to leave his wife and two little boys for another woman, Intimacy is a first-person confession in which slanted self-justification and special pleading masquerade as sensitivity and courageous honesty. Infidelity, it seems, is evidence of a questing spirit that refuses to give up on life. Duty can be left to dullards and the living dead. "Hurting someone is an act of reluctant intimacy," avows the narrator, with typically twisted logic. Kureishi has manfully overcome that reluctance once again.

would appear to be a response to the charges of solipsism which the novel invited. A similar screenwriter broods over a similar decision. Here, though, the setting is sub-Chekhovian: a summer weekend at the couple's grand-rented country retreat on which converge an ill- assorted flock of lovers, ex-lovers and would-be lovers, the odd unreconstructed lefty, a hideously patronising portrait of a nanny and people who, shaped by the 60s and disoriented by the 80s, have sold their souls to the media. The intention, presumably, is to be more objective and to let dissenting voices in. But unlike Chekhov, Kureishi has no talent for impartial compassion.

For example, the wife (Sian Thomas) is an off-putting specimen of nerve- frazzled overmanagement. When she declares that she thinks "the family is the point you can live from", it's with all the crazed attractiveness of someone claiming that "the strait-jacket is a wonderful aid to self- development". Kureishi is careful to give Stephen, the male absconder (Sean Chapman), a female counterpart (sympathetically played by Penny Downie) in troubled discontent with family and longing for liberation. This is the kind of play where people bark sociologically identifying lines at each other that have all the layered texture of shouting in a bathroom. Moreover, it rigs the argument by having its deserters bang on about "life" all the time. Well, who isn't on the side of "life" thus ill-defined. Replace it with the phrase "self-pitying selfishness" and the outlook might be different.