To start a play with one clunkingly expository telephone call might be considered incompetence. To start it with two on the trot begins to look like an artistic deathwish. True, there's the odd exception to this rule: Melvyn Bragg's King Lear in New York, for example, began with an over-convenient flurry of informative phoning and went on to survive, just about. The same cannot be said for Something Missing, a 65-minute two-hander written and directed by Hugh Cruttwell at the Etcetera Theatre Club. Here the duff telephonic kick-off is very much the shape of things to come.
Out of the blue, rich publisher Lucasta Lesage (Deborah Davies) receives a call from Conrad Likosa (Steven Crossley), the half- brother she has not seen or heard from in the last 30 years. All their other relations are now dead. The pair were born of the same mother, but when Conrad was six her second husband (Lucasta's father) sent him away to Canada in the care of an uncle. The reason for this: that there was 'something missing' in the boy. You can see how he came to this conclusion, for Mr Crossley's touchy, obsessive Conrad, has 'Possible Psychopath' written all over him. A stick of Blackpool rock is discretion itself by comparison. Initially a bit suspicious, Lucasta is soon in her half-brother's arms.
Different periods take different angles on the intensity of the sibling relationship. Jacobean drama, for instance, is rich in young women oppressed (with an incest- tinged possessiveness) by brothers whose preferment at court depends upon their sisters marrying the right powerful men. At the moment, what seems to interest dramatists is the way the sibling bond remains a compelling force, despite family splits and separate upbringing. If reunited in adulthood, there's a strong chance that siblings will be drawn to each other sexually, as was brought out in a fine recent television play, Close Relations. Cruttwell too, it seems, wishes to explore the pyschology of the couple's amour. But the hokey, preposterous thriller format of his play is less the vehicle than the hearse of this good intention.
Displaying a lack of nous and general knowledge peculiar even in a publisher, Ms Davies' Lucasta manages - without putting two and two together - to reminisce that (a) her father left Conrad money in his will which could only be claimed when all his other issue were dead, and (b) that the name her father had really intended to give her was Jocasta. And where names are concerned, let's face it, a myth is as good as a mile. Not even tearful recollections of her dear, full-brother (who mysteriously fell to his death off Beachy Head), ruffle her trustingness.
You envy neither actor having to cope with this material, but Ms Davies, on the whole has the rawer deal. She has to dole out dollops of information in the most unnatural-sounding way and be insanely unsuspicious. Then she has to make you believe that she knew without knowing all along. That's love for you. (Though the issue of how much you need to know before loving someone is, like the other themes, melodramatically trivialised). Pushed a bit further, the play could be a sublime parody. But then the something missing from Something Missing is a sense of the ridiculous.
Something Missing continues at the Etcetera Theatre Club until 20 December (Box office: 071 482 4857).
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