Karen Malpede
New End Theatre

Publicity images

This intriguing American play, which here gets its world premiere, perhaps tries to take on rather a lot: the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, the jealousies within an 'open' marriage, cross-generational romance and the wish to have progeny for starters, though in fact it begins with a look at actor training that sets up expectations of a comic evening.

For Sarah Golden's acting class student Miranda has prepared a chorus speech from Sophocles' Antigone, and since it is a chorus she is dancing it, while her colleague and boyfriend Jeremy (Jas Vantyler) is struggling with a speech of Tiresias because he doesn't quite understand what augury means. It kicks of things to an amusing start and introduces the idea of protest and dissent that underlies the play but much of the action, which we often see in flashback to early times, is concerned with the relationship between teacher Sarah and her husband Alan Golden, a situation that reflects the Old Testament story of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar.

Susan Penhaligon gives a strong performance that captures Sarah in mid life crisis, still mourning a peace protestor lover drafted to Vietnam and shot there, who seems almost present in student Jeremy who turns out to have served in Iraq and has his own guilty nightmares to cope with. Her husband Alan (George Bartinieff) runs a refugee agency but seems previously to have been a theatrical producer, and he has earlier had an affair with his Lebanese secretary. The grown up daughter resulting from their liaison now turns up in New York. Add to the mix Sarah's boss at the drama school (Michael Roberts), who long ago gave her a break on Broadway but was rejected by her as a lover. She thinks he was responsible for her earlier lover's death in Vietnam.

Vantyler as Jeremy suggests a not very bright young man who doesn't think beyond the moment and handles his guilt and sudden outbursts of violence well but neither he nor the other men quite take on a real life of their own; the complex plot gives the actors little chance to develop their characters in context.

Student Miranda, Lebanese secretary Hala and her daughter Miriam are all played by Najla Said who also has little on which to built real personalities, but as Miriam she manages to present a politicised young woman who is also searching for her own identity and finding a strange relationship with her father that becomes quite moving.

This is a play that is more about emotion than polemic, where the problems of marriage are given the same weight as the traumas brought about by war. It doesn't argue a case but relies on the responsiveness of the audience to its emotions.

Ninon Jerome's production links the episodic scenes with Jeremy Haneman's pleasant music while the actors rearrange furniture on Lotte Collett's simple set to make a fluid whole. Unravelling the complexities of time-shifts, not marked by even costume changes, and relationships adds interest but, despite the violence of some moments, this is not the powerful anti-war play that the publicity seems to think it is. Perhaps it is too easy for a British audience to avoid identification with something that is so entirely American in its guilt perspective.

Until Sunday 5th October 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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