EDINBURGH FRINGE / Limp, just when it matters: Neil Bartlett has a sharp and menacing side to his character - an edge Paul Taylor finds missing in his play Night After Night

Paul Taylor
Tuesday 24 August 1993 23:02

HE LOOKS, when dressed in a suit, like what you might get if you commissioned El Greco to paint a gentleman's outfitter, though the eyes in his long, bony, pasty face would be a match, you'd reckon, for any snake. The voice, too, has a deceptively quiet insistence; it makes you feel as if you're being stroked with the back of a very sharp knife. This quietly-edged effeminacy of manner manages to be both sensitive and serrated. Feel free to think me a fairy, it seems to say, but don't forget I'm formidable.

It's heartening, if surprising, to report that I have been describing the artistic director-elect of the Lyric Hammersmith in London. Neil Bartlett's appointment there must be judged one of the boldest moves in the art world in recent years. To exaggerate a little, it is like Derek Jarman being offered and accepting Ealing Studios. Bartlett's work is, after all, defiantly gay in sensibility, even when it tackles 'straight' art. To put him in charge of a large, two-auditoria theatre on London's outer circuit is, therefore, risky.

Because I wish this future regime well and also because Night After Night, Bartlett's new show at the Edinburgh Festival, is to be one of the first main stage pieces presented at the Royal Court in the autumn, I wanted to like it. Which only goes to show that you can't have everything you want. Night After Night starts from a good (if unstartling) idea but then, instead of developing its radical potential, goes all limp on you; under the guise of deconstructing the phenomenon in question, it ends up having a self-indulgent, brave- troupers-smiling-through-tears wallow in it.

Predominantly gay, the chorus boys in Fifties' musicals occupied an ironic position; able to jump about in make-up in public and get paid for it, but only as the moving meat behind a boy-meets-girl story which, while it might become a major vehicle for gay yearnings, said nothing about their own lives.

Playing both himself and his father, Bartlett approaches the topic autobiographically. We are to imagine it is a rainy evening in 1958: to celebrate the news that a son is on the way, his father is waiting for his pregnant wife in the West End where they are to see a musical.

The split-self effect this creates (Barlett using a body that is apparently the image of his father to impersonate a man whose sexual inclinations are far from identical) should strike interesting resonances with the chorus boy theme, as should the poignant disparity between the father who is expecting him and the childless Bartlett fils. But this fails to shed much light on the issue, largely because Barlett pere remains, in his son's theatrical conception of him, a sentimentalised cipher who is not sufficiently imagined in his own right and so can't put up any great resistance to being sucked into the mock-musical in the second half, where the tension between the pair is resolved. There's something Joycean about this preoccupation with art and paternity, but this is no Ulysses.

In fact the second half doesn't even offer good pastiche of the American musicals supposedly under survey, while the lacklustre, amateurish camp of the chorus boys constitutes a kind of libel on the professionals whose lives the piece examines. And the lack of regard for the commercial pressures that have kept the musical dream-factory (and the resulting paradoxes of sexuality) in production almost makes you want to ring for Brecht.

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