Australia proves to be theatre of the absurd

PUBLISHED: 16:46 27 May 2009 | UPDATED: 17:28 16 August 2010

Up West End When the Rain Stops Falling Almeida Theatre Until July 4 Box Office 020 7359 4404 AUSTRALIA is another country,

Up West End

'When the Rain Stops Falling'

Almeida Theatre

Until July 4

Box Office 020 7359 4404

AUSTRALIA is another country, and Michael Attenborough has directed this strange play in the Brechtian manner which only serves to emphasise the alienation of the audience, both from the play and, perhaps from Australia itself, writes Edward Martyn.

Real rain is very seldom a good idea in the theatre, and as the title suggests, there is an awful lot of it in this play. One's attention is therefore focussed on the discomfort of the actors, and the logistical problems of dealing with rain inside a building.

This is not what theatre is about, as I am sure Mr Attenborough is well aware - but he has failed to come up with an imaginative alternative, so we are left to worry about dripping umbrellas instead of becoming engaged with the tortuous plot.

Andrew Bovell has written a curate's egg of a play. His avowed task is to illustrate the damage that we inflict on our children. Short scenes, containing actors trying to establish their characters compete with time-warps, rain showers and a fish falling from the ceiling. This leads to longer scenes where the half-developed characters attempt to confront emotional dilemmas and try to sort out the dysfunctional lives that have been bequeathed to them. Paradoxically, this part works much better, and there are some excellent performances from Lisa Dillon (Elizabeth Law) as a frustrated intellectual, stuck in a sham marriage with a paedophile husband as she moans "Don't touch me, or I will break" and Richard Hope (Gabriel York) as the lost child of a shambolic and tragic relationship between two people trapped in unsatisfactory lives and looking for a way out.

Mr Bovell has a nose for family dramas and the director finally relents and allows soap-opera lives to emerge unhindered and engulf us in their pitiful emotions. Naomi Bentley is particularly effective as Gabrielle York, a young woman stranded in the lonely, windswept delta land of the Coorong. Her life has been blighted by the loss of her young brother, and the subsequent disintegration of her family. Now she waits, waiting table in a roadhouse, without hope, but dreamily resigned to either a loveless local marriage or a future spent wandering the dark side of glittering Australian cities.

Leah Purcell as Gabrielle in later life gives a stirring account of a woman with all hope finally removed from her life, and her cry "The future is screaming at me" is a fitting prelude to her calmly eating the ashes of her dead lover. The intrusive fish from the first scene keeps re-appearing, and an alternative title for this play could easily have been 'Fish Soup' as this unwelcome broth is served up at every family meal, to the disbelief of audience and players alike, and reduces the potential drama to a game of melo-dramatic consequences. There is much to admire in this production. The set is imaginative and creates the Australian landscape extremely effectively, the acting is committed and heartfelt and the writing is often piercingly incisive, whilst the direction of the characters and their turmoil is assured. However, the dysfunctional lives of the characters are reflected in a dysfunctional structure, and stylistically it veers between soap-opera and theatre of the absurd.

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