IF THE therapy situation hadn't been independently thought of, studio drama would have had to invent it. What could be more 'effective' - or cost-effective - than a nice two-hander with a neat built-in structure (patient gradually helped to burst through emotional block), a bravura acting opportunity (as patient works his / her painful way back to traumatic, life-shaping childhood experience), and the possibility of a little transference, not to say love, between patient and therapist?
Almost exactly a year ago, The Bush presented just such a drama, Maureen O'Brien's The Cutting, in which a young woman, imprisoned for murdering her mother and self-immured in impenetrable silence, was freed from her prison-within-a-prison by sessions with a child psychiatrist. Now, at the same theatre, we have Richard Cameron's Not Fade Away, another two-hander, the difference being that here the patient, a successful young career woman called Frances (Kelly Hunter), is a case of multiple personality, a condition deriving (you gather early on) from sexual violation by her grandfather when she was a little girl. She has since blanked out her emotional life, convinced only that she was and is bad and is now paying for it.
The internal selves (heard in Hunter's voice-overs) are ghostly, knowing children, whose interventions can be unnerving ('I've been out with a girl all night, smell my finger,' they chant); but the psychiatrist (Neal Swettenham) tells her that she has to let these trapped creatures out to give her what they can. That old psychological chestnut 'You must learn to love yourself' would have to be couched, in this case, in the plural.
'Will we get back one day the echo on the wind of all we have done to one another?': what, more specifically, men have done to women is an abiding preoccupation in Cameron's work. His Can't Stand Up for Falling Down, for example, scored for an (unwitting) trio of female voices, gave three different perspectives on how one man's violence had destroyed the lives around him. Just occasionally, in this new play, the discrepancy between the realistic settings and the poetic aspiration of some of the lines (like the one above) makes you feel, a little uncomfortably, that female suffering would be better expressed if the writing were less consciously fine. Otherwise, there is no reason to doubt that Cameron's concern is real. The main problem with the piece is that, while posing as a two-hander, it feels for long stretches like a solo tour de force for the impressive Hunter, the psychiatrist's role reduced to the most invisible of prompters, attention flitting every now and then to Frances alone at home or giving dramatic renditions of pop songs in a karaoke bar.
This shifting of focus is a problem for Simon Usher's production, but the lack of chemistry between patient and counsellor would matter less if it weren't for the cutesy final scene on which all the little selves (Rose, Sherbet, Catcher and Sundance) come to say goodbye to him. The others snigger and tease as it becomes clear that Sundance fancies him. But the possibility of romance for her and for Frances springs from nowhere and the drama may, at this point, remind you of something footling like On A Clear Day (where a shrink falls in love with a girl's previous incarnation, reached through hypnosis), rather than of what it is: a serious-minded play about love and identity.
Continues at the Bush Theatre, London W12 (081-743 3388).
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