CLATTERING about the set of Gregory Motton's new play, A Message for the Broken Hearted, are the sort of curtains that, in hospital wards, are swiftly whisked around anything that is sickening, unsightly, or dead. Tricky to account for on any naturalistic level, these drapes would, it strikes one as the evening progresses, be hard to improve on as a succinct piece of theatre criticism.
It's now four years since London saw an original work by Motton (in Simon Usher's superbly acted production of Looking At You (revived) Again at the Bush). Like all his plays, this three-hander did not give intelligibility more than a passing nod, but the writing continued to intrigue with its Beckett-like Irishisms, its inconsequential humour and its feel for the cracked poetry of blarneying self-justification. After his two exercises in stabbing urban surrealism (Ambulance, Downfall), which trawled the material and moral destitution of contemporary city life, Looking At You suggested that he could also manage a more intimate focus on inner quests and palsied private relations.
In his public pronouncements in the past year, though, there have been disturbing signs that Motton wants to become the Howard Barker of the under-35s. There is the same persecution mania about directors and theatrical managements (and this from someone who, relatively speaking, has been cosseted by the Royal Court, the venue for his next play); the same barmy need to vaunt his own talent by a sweeping dismissal of everyone else's. I expect it will be only a matter of time before a group of actors, in need of a cause, rally to his colours and set up a company like the Wrestling School, solely devoted to presenting his undervalued, underventilated work.
Brought to BAC in London from the Liverpool Playhouse in a so-so production by Ramin Gray, A Message for the Broken Hearted prompts a further parallel with Barker in that, like some of his plays, its obscurity prevents you from attacking with confidence the moral unpleasantness it seems vaguely to transmit. The focus is on Scots Mickey (excellent Kevin McMonagle) and his relations with two women. At the start, he is betraying Linda (Rose Keegan) by his affair with posh, anguished Jenine (Samantha Holland), but he gives this latter up and breaks her heart. Linda, meanwhile, has to cope with the incest-tinged demands of her father (Morris Perry), a suavely suggestive party in cravat and tweed who, from the point of view of dependency, seems to be under the delusion (or else the production is) that he's 20 years older than he is.
Mickey falls down a lot on stage and Linda, at one point, spectacularly chucks up over it. Morning sickness? Hard to tell in a Motton play where pregnancy and phantom pregnancy are states so intertwined (and so often used as emotional weapons) it would be safer to define the former as a phantom pregnancy. As she has effortfully trained herself to love her rival's forthcoming child by Mickey, Jenine is horrified at the final dinner to be disabused by Linda's father: 'Sadly the little pink patches in her knickers tell us otherwise.' But even that's not the end of the matter because this unsavoury oldster then proclaims that Linda's baby is 'dead but clinging' and will have to be scraped out. Mickey asks if he can be there.
Heartless? Yes, and there's not enough in the play to convince you that heartlessness is being properly placed and judged. Grief-stricken Jenine is seen washing a bleeding heart in the river, but because of the context, this fails to work as a symbol. The heart is just a prop bought from the butcher and even the play's best cuts are Motton dressed as lamb.
'A Message for the Broken Hearted' continues until 30 May at BAC, Lavender Hill, London SW11 (071- 223 2223).
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