First Night: Five hours in this hyped-up haunted house is bit of a let-down

`Cloudstreet' Riverside Studios Hammersmith
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The Independent Online
"ECSTATIC" would be too guarded a way of describing the advance- hype on Cloudstreet, the five hour soap opera epic based on a novel by Tim Winton, which Sydney's much respected Company B have brought now from their Belvoir Theatre to the Riverside Studios.

Preview pieces have faithfully reported the infallible standing ovations the show has received on home territory and in Zurich. "Simply awesome" seems to be about as negative as criticism has been prepared to go. Throwing national understatement to the wind, one British journalist characterised the ending as "transcendental".

I wish I could fling myself into this general celebration wholeheartedly. To be sure, after the four or five hour experience (which, unlike soap opera, does have a cumulative power), I was left with a healthy admiration for the poetic simplicity and canny resource of Neil Armfield's staging and for the quirky character fullness and commitment of the 14-strong cast. But I felt as much manipulated as uplifted, and troubled by certain strands of emotional furiousness in the material that, to my mind, vitiate the heart-warming nature of its message.

Beginning at the end of the Second World War and spanning 20 years, the piece charts the eventually intertwined destinies of two very different families - the religious, industrious Lambs and the feckless, gambling Pickleses - who wind up sharing a large, ramshackle haunted house on the outskirts of Perth.

Since it was once dishonestly acquired by a "respectable" old white woman who mistreated the black girls put in her missionary care there, the house has a past not unlike that of Australia itself. The spooks can be seen in eerie magnified silhouette behind one of the sheets surrounding Robert Cousins' bare, versatile, warmly lit set with its fringes of sand and magical star pattern of dainty overhanging light bulbs.

Particularly sensitive to these unappeased ghosts is Fish Lamb (Daniel Wyllie), the family favourite who is brain damaged in a boyhood near-drowning accident powerfully staged at the start. Wyllie's performance, which milks many a self-indulgent cluck from the audience, is as dubious as the way the play (and the novel before it) treats this character, who is on an uncomfortable continuum with Forest Gump. Not least in the climactic suicide which is "transcendent" only because the piece presumes to know what he is thinking at this point and gives him a suddenly adult, poetic voice in which to articulate his visionary sense of impending and terminal self discovery.

Christopher Pitman and Claire Jones give glowing performances as (respectively) Fish's devoted brother Quick, whose life is shaped by his irrational guilt over the accident and as Sparky, independent-minded Rose Pickles, the girl next door who becomes his wife and soul mate.

Paul Taylor