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Curse of the Starving Class

Sam Shepard
A Lyceum production
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
(2009)

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The audience were often unsure whether it was appropriate to laugh in this colourful portrayal of a family falling apart. This is to be expected in Sam Shepard's tragicomedy that flits between the natural and the slightly surreal.

Set in rundown house in southern California, husband and wife, Weston (Christopher Fairbank) and Ella (Carla Mendonça), avoid each other. Ella in her dreams to sell the property and go to Europe, Weston in drink down at the local bar, although he has plans too.

Fairbank delivers an unsentimental picture of alcoholism, a belligerent drunk who is trying to deal with the emptiness of life after his service in the air force. There may be humour in his clumsy movements, but there is none in his scowling face and harsh voice.

Where Weston is brash and dishevelled, Ella is fragile, neurotic and daintily dressed. Constantly trying to overcome her fear of her husband and gain the upper hand. Mendonça also shows not just the hysteria of the character but also her coldness in Ella's complete indifference to her daughter's problems.

The frustration and impotence of the parents is echoed in their two offspring. With Wesley (Christopher Brandon) pissing on his sister Emma's school project, leading Emma (Alice Haig) to attempt to fly the nest on the family's horse.

The American accents are fine and just as importantly the characters do feel very American. Haig looks every inch the all-American little girl. She gives an assured performance and is particularly good taking on her mother's creepy lawyer.

Brandon has to deliver several long speeches, which are made all the more difficult by the live lamb down stage trying (it seemed) to upstage him. Wesley is a twisted character, whose actions are sometimes inexplicable, Brandon does well to make the character believable. His direction though is rather on the static side, which is especially noticeable when he is frozen and actor is giving an animated speech.

The minor characters are less interesting, Neil McKinven makes a suitably sly lawyer, but the others appear only briefly to explain the plot of Weston running debts and needing to sell the property to repay them.

While the bar owner, policeman and local mafia get only a two-dimensional role, two non-human entities on stage fare rather better. The refrigerator and the lamb, which received an audible aah when it appeared on stage (something I've only ever heard before for Alan Cummings' arse!), were important characters in their own right.

The fridge with its harsh light is bare for much of the play, the family members seem in awe of it, like some shrine in the kitchen that may provide them with salvation, but instead just blinks its cold emptiness back at them.

The fridge is a period piece, though I suspect examples of this old model still survive out in small town USA. Shepard's script has weathered well too, partly through its vague location, but more because with central issues such as consumerism and property it is every bit as relevant today. It is not just the script alone; the production is well oiled and keeps the piece fresh.

The lamb meanwhile, after the initial excitement of a live animal on stage, was well behaved and even seemed aware to the extent of staring in the same direction as Brandon at one point. It had a bleating session during an argument between Weston and Ella in act two, appropriate as Ella ended the argument telling him to get rid of lamb.

From Weston's drunkenness to the butchered body of the lamb, it is a grotesque piece, yet somehow through the blood there is comedy released by these four frustrated characters trapped like the lamb in its pen. Sometimes you have to laugh.

Until 11th April, 2009

Reviewer: Seth Ewin