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[email protected]

Brad Fraser
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

[email protected] production photo

Canadian playwright Brad Fraser continues a relationship with the Royal Exchange Theatre, and in particular with artistic director Braham Murray, that stretches back to 2005, by premiering his latest play, [email protected], at the Manchester theatre.

Unusually for Fraser, the play contains no male characters (and no nudity) but instead focuses on five women who have been friends since their school days but who are now all turning fifty. The play opens at a birthday party for Olivia at the home she shares with her long-term lesbian partner Norma, but when Olivia arrives she is drunk and offensive to all of them; much of the rest of the play is concerned with how her friends deal with Olivia's alcoholism as, despite being a doctor, partner Norma seems reluctant to deal with the problem.

Of course the others all have issues that come out during the play: Fern's perfect marriage may not be as perfect as they all have believed; Lorene may not be as indifferent to the grown-up children that she never sees as she has claimed; and the tough, wise-cracking Tricia crumbles when she has to deal with a serious health problem.

Structurally, the play utilises cinematic cross-cutting of scenes interspersed with monologues familiar from other Fraser plays, but here he doesn't do anything new or original with form, and in some ways appears to be just going through the motions. The plot ambles along in a way that isn't entirely unpredictable or original or particularly well-focused but is interesting enough to draw in the audience, helped by some nicely-drawn characters and some strong and witty dialogue, even though at times they seem to be speaking more like middle aged gay men than post-menopausal women.

These distinctly-drawn characters are portrayed very well in performance too, with a great central performance from Jan Ravens as the addicted and often unpleasant Olivia looked after by Teresa Banham as her conflicted and perhaps complicit partner Norma. Barbara Barnes is the perfect housewife and yoga enthusiast Fern, Candida Gubbins is Lorene and Ingrid Lacey with short hair, tattoos and cynical expression is Tricia.

While it may not be Fraser's best play, there is some great humour in the script and some good, frustrating characters who make you want to shout out or slap some sense into them, which all adds up to an entertaining couple of hours at the theatre.

Running until 14 May 2011

Reviewer: David Chadderton