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Car Cemetery

Fernando Arrabal, translated by Barbara Wright
Gate Theatre, Notting Hill
(2007)

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The new directing team at the Gate have certainly set out their stall early. Carrie Cracknell and Natalie Abrahami, who are both still in their 20s, are apparently less interested in text-driven plays than unusual and visually seductive pieces that will challenge their audiences and, they hope, excite them.

They are also willing to rip their theatre apart if necessary in order to achieve the desired dramatic effect. Following Miss Cracknell's intriguing and visually stunning production of The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents by Lukas Bärfuss, her colleague has chosen to lead off with an absurdist re-creation of the life of Christ by a prolific Spanish writer who has spent much of his life in France.

Fernando Arrabal seeks to overturn every convention and ensure that contradictions abound in a play that lasts little over an hour but is packed with drama, if not always clarity.

As the title might suggest, the action takes place in a grungy automobile graveyard, lovingly designed by Lorna Ritchie to encompass the whole space. Bits of wrecked cars surround the audience who are not allowed to sit on certain seats. The reason for this is that many of the entrances and exits are made by actors who have to pick their way through their public without treading on them.

The focal point is a dilapidated car that is home to Alexi Kaye Campbell's highly-stressed Milos and his pretty young lover Dila, well played by Dolya Gavanski. Their relationship, like so many others in this play is sadomasochistic with roles swapped on a regular basis.

They are the proprietors of a business that is somewhere between a motel (in the most literal sense) and a brothel. Their guests stay in the remains of cars and the services that they receive turn Dila into a nurse, mother and lover.

Innocence and altruistic nobility are injected in the handsome person of a carpenter's son born in a stable. He is Emanou, a strolling troubadour who believes in good for its own sake but has a sideline in involuntary euthanasia. He and his two colleagues spread a little happiness to the downtrodden but, along the way, make themselves unpopular with the authorities, represented by a pair of fitness fanatic flics.

Emanou enjoys tender love with the rain-coated Dila, losing his virginity to her for the umpteenth time and promising to change, which he never will. However, in The Car Cemetery love does not come without pain and the final scenes start like something from a kinky version of The Keystone Cops as a pair of leather-clad flics chase Emanou around the theatre.

The play becomes much darker after they catch him, as he is whipped and in a beautiful final tableau crucified beneath a crown of lights.

With its emphasis on sex, uncertainty and faith and constant contradictions, The Car Cemetery is a most unorthodox play that may not be to everybody's taste. However, supported by a strong acting company, Natalie Abrahami has turned it into a thrilling, chilling, black comedy that announces her arrival at the Gate in fine style.

After such a promising and adventurous start, it will be fascinating to see what the theatre's artistic directors have up their sleeve for the New Year.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher