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Serious themes and nowhere to hide

PUBLISHED: 15:22 30 January 2008 | UPDATED: 11:30 01 July 2010

OLEANNA CAST: Caroline Doyle and Alan Brown.

OLEANNA CAST: Caroline Doyle and Alan Brown.

WITH its emphasis on fractured dialogue, unfinished sentences and unspoken layers of meaning, David Mamet s play Oleanna demands 100 per cent commitment

WITH its emphasis on fractured dialogue, unfinished sentences and unspoken layers of meaning, David Mamet's play Oleanna demands 100 per cent commitment from its two-strong cast, writes Mark Campbell.

In performance last week at the South London Theatre in West Norwood, Alan Brown and Caroline Doyle proved that they were well up to this task, under the capable direction of Dave Hollander.

John, a dyed-in-the-wool university professor, calls a female student to his office to discuss her ailing coursework.

But Carol's problems lay not in her lack of intelligence, but in her inability to adopt a so-called 'academic' mindset.

In a well-meaning attempt to help her, John dissects the notion of failure, exposing his own feelings of inadequacy, both in his career and his personal life.

But Carol interprets her teacher's openness in sexual terms, accusing him of treating her as an object of lust - tantamount in her eyes to rape - and filing a complaint with the university's governing body.

John, fearing for his livelihood, pleads with Carol that her concerns are unfounded - but in so doing he ineluctably becomes the very monster she has created.

Oleanna's themes are intensely serious, but Mamet is careful to present them in a way that is never didactic: the audience's allegiance switches between student and teacher as the verbal sparring grows ever more splenetic.

The two actors were extremely convincing.

Alan Brown portrayed a man whose comfortable existence was on the verge of imploding catastrophically, while Caroline Doyle's carefully measured performance exposed a volatile temperament just below the surface.

Mamet's distinctive style of dialogue was skilfully handled by both actors, each employing an understated New England accent that never distracted from the words.

With constant interruptions from a ringing telephone, the theme of communication - or lack of it - was central to the drama.

Failure of language, Mamet seemed to be saying, was at the root of society's ills.

The theatre's intimate Prompt Studio was the perfect setting for this heavy, but supremely fascinating, play.

There was nowhere for the audience to hide when things got really nasty.

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