AFTER the well-plumbed depths of The Ballachulish Beat, up was clearly the only way the fortunes of the C P Taylor retrospective at Edinburgh could travel. With Walter, progress in that direction is worryingly modest. Very loosely based on the life of the music-hall comic Walter Jackson (like Taylor, a Glasgow Jew), the piece is a flaccid memory play rendered even limper by Hamish Glen's dire production.
We meet the comedian in wheel-chaired old age, dying of heart disease (again like Taylor). The character looks back wryly at incidents that illustrate his complicated emotional attachments, the Jewish heritage that continues to have a hold over him despite his official renunciation of it, and the left-wing radicalism of which he has grown tired. Amidst a lot of desultory reminiscences, the main flashpoint comes when his dying Jewish wife, whom he hasn't seen for 40 years, sends him a prayer-shawl and an invitation to her funeral (both pointed attempts to remind him of his mortality and his faith). The appearance of the tallith distresses his young mistress (who is miraculously pregnant by him), since for her it represents Jewish hysteria over births and deaths. When other relatives show up, offering reconciliation, she feels like a rattled, outnumbered gentile.
There can be no doubting the affection (nor the inside knowledge) that went into this fictionalised portrait of a man whose experience mirrors, in some crucial aspects, that of the author. The dialogue is flecked with good one-liners, too, as when Walter, asked by his doctor if he can achieve erections, chips back with, 'You could loosely describe them as that, Michael, to a wee extent.' And, from time to time, the play steers itself into situations that have an attractively loopy quality. While giving Walter his medical examination, for instance, the doctor notices a woman waving at them from the garden. It turns out she is an old flame: 'Gave us syphilis 40 years ago and just came back to apologise,' explains Walter, asking him to draw the curtains. As the doctor says, 'Better late than never.'
What makes the piece a chore to sit through is its inconsequential, rambling shapelessness. In Michael Wilcox's newly edited and adapted version of what started out as a pair of plays, the drama amiably meanders this way and that, gently prodding issues but never getting to grips with them. You quickly feel as though you are travelling on a network that consists entirely of branch lines. These problems are exacerbated by Glen's production. Every time Walter switches to direct-to-audience monologue, there is a heavy-handed change of lighting that has a disastrous effect on the pace. Resembling some grey mausoleum, housing a bizarre array of objects, the set looks like a place where a corpse would feel more at home than a comedy. The cast is good (especially Sandra Voe as the touchingly daffy former sweetheart), but that excellent actor Tom Watson is so indecipherably Glaswegian as Walter that surtitles for us Sassenachs would help nation speak unto nation a little more clearly than at present.
In the Festival's Granville Barker season there are more rehearsed readings of his plays than there are full productions (a ratio of 4:3). This is surely to get the balance wrong. The principles of selection give cause for doubt, too. Rococo, Barker's one-act farce about a family haggling over an heirloom, whiled away 50 agreeable minutes at the rehearsed reading with RNT actors on Wednesday. But why, if you're trying to put Barker on the map, revive a thoroughly minor work such as this and completely ignore a major, challenging play like Waste?
Walter continues until 22 August at the St Bride's Centre (Booking: 031-225 5756).
Correction: the photograph used in yesterday's review of 'The Voysey Inheritance' was not of Peter Lindford as Edward, as captioned, but of Michael Grandage as Hugh.
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