FROM the Agamemnon of Aeschylus to The Homecoming of Harold Pinter, returning to the family hearth after years elsewhere has a habit, in drama, of proving a far from unmixed pleasure. The Dearly Beloved, Philip Osment's fine new play at Hampstead, follows one of the classic patterns of the story-type. Local boy made good (Alaric, a middle-aged freelance television producer) comes back to visit his mother in a small West Country town where his presence - stirring forgotten dreams and reviving animosities - brings home to his old friends who stayed put there the various ways in which their lives have failed. The resulting comedy of prickly rivalries, injured egos and ruffled feathers eventually takes a tragic turn, forcing Alaric himself to face the fact that he is not quite the success story everyone thought.
Head held at a shy angle, fat face creased in a permanent, unctuously humble smirk, Peter Wight's excellent Alaric exudes self-satisfaction in the provoking meal he makes of his modesty. The manner is a put-up job, as his sly put-downs make plain. When Barton (John Gillett), a school chum turned vet, sneers at the television producer's 'Bohemian' friends, Alaric dangles the term in disdainful tongs, implying that if macho, sunlamp-tanned Barton were to be prosecuted for provincialism, this would be Exhibit A. 'Bohemian? That's a word I haven't heard in a long time.'
As we follow the large tangled group of friends and family through a swimming party, a mystical moment with some deer and a holiday slide-show, Alaric continues to put Barton's nose out of joint, attracting the woman he confides in and fancies, and helping his son oppose him over choice of future career. Even when his companions aren't being directly undermined, the thought that Alaric might be judging them pushes to the surface their own self-doubts, as happens when a former girlfriend, now in a seemingly joyful lesbian relationship, starts to question the happiness of her lot.
As with 'Kafkaesque', there should be a moratorium on the word 'Chekhovian', but you can't help but be reminded of Chekhov at times here. Alaric, for example, has more than a touch of Trigorin from The Seagull in the way he talks about his work to Elaine (Pamela Moiseiwitsch). It's true that Osment hasn't got Chekhov's great gift for creating drama out of what is left unsaid between the lines (everything a bit too clearly labelled), but he has a definite talent for evoking in ensemble scenes a comic sense of everyone pulling in contrary directions - not least, Alaric's mother rabbiting on regardless, and his retarded older brother letting out a stream of deafening farts.
Caught in haunting snapshot poses at the ends of scenes, Mike Alfreds' splendid cast pull us right into this world, from the strange opening where we see the mother drying and dressing the naked adult brother and singing to herself, as though this were as normal an activity as defrosting the fridge, through to the subdued sadness of the ending in a snowy graveyard. Beautifully designed and directed, the piece reinforces the impression that Hampstead Theatre is on a roll.
Last year, at this address, Doug Lucie's play Grace squeezed some sharp satire out of American televangelists. Brian Phelan's new drama Himself, which has just opened in Paul Unwin's production at the Nuffield, Southampton, also embraces this topic but is less bent on making a frontal assault. It asks you to imagine what would happen if an ageing Irish actor- manager (Timothy West), whose career is on the wane, was suddenly to be offered fame and fortune in the US as the figurehead for a fundamentalist group keen to clean up Christianity's sullied image after the scandals involving earlier televangelists.
Why they should be so sure that this thespian (very much an actor), replete with obvious wig and corset, runs no risk of disgracing them is never clear, particularly considering the group's bigoted stance on homosexuality. It also seems a touch cock-eyed to claim that a non-American could become a media star preaching a return to good old American values. The angle of approach is awkward too. Apart from at the beginning, the play is always stuck backstage, so we never witness the theatrical chemistry that makes live audiences believe in him, and that problematically blurs the division for him between role and man. Given that he becomes a million-dollar-a-week- raising televangelist, this low-tech production could make more effort to convey the texture of that world. I remained unconverted.
'The Dearly Beloved' continues at Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (071-722 9301). 'Himself', Nuffield, Southampton (0703-671 771)
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