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Arts

Orgy of confusion

3 December 2005

12:00 AM

3 December 2005

12:00 AM

Take a pile of bilge, add a bucket of drivel, stir in a few dead babies’ heads and you’ve got Coram Boy. The Olivier’s big Christmas production is a version of a kids’ book about abducted orphans in the 18th century. It’s certainly lavish. A huge cast, acres of costumes, enough lights to land the Shuttle, and an orchestra on stage. What for? An orgy of confusion and tedium, a choppy text and a gang of flouncing show-offs striding about the stage delivering ‘Egad, sir’ dialogue and occasionally breaking into a burst of Handel. Coram Boy, beware, is a curriculum text. The stalls are filled with parping, snickering, beeping teenagers and their earnest, breathy teachers, so it’s not so much a night at the theatre as a contest between audience and cast to see who can create the biggest, fussiest, stupidest and most hysterical quantity of meaningless noise. The stage wins, by a whisker. The show also contains the most gratuitous and nauseating piece of violence I’ve ever witnessed in a theatre. A baby being buried alive. Great fun. Most of the critics found the show profoundly moving. Or so they claimed. I’ve begun to suspect that critics aren’t interested in recording an honest response to a play; they’re more concerned with giving a favourable account of themselves. Any show that touches sensitive issues makes them dissolve into a warm gloop of simpering approbation.

Take Hampstead’s new play about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American communists executed in 1953 for selling nuclear secrets to the Russians. This wordy, worthy ordeal was greeted in some of the national papers as a new masterpiece. It’s true there’s a great story here. The collective derangement that gripped America during the 1950s inspired Arthur Miller to write The Crucible. James Phillips, writer and director of this show, stands no chance of rivalling his model. He makes all kinds of mad choices. The protagonists’ name is changed from Rosenberg to Rubenstein for no intelligible reason. He tells the tale through the couple’s son and niece who meet by chance as students, begin an affair and later discover they’re first cousins. A laborious piece of comic whoopsidaisy which adds nothing but delay and muddle. Phillips’s biggest mistake is to trespass on Miller’s territory and to nab his dramatic themes.


Comparisons are inevitable, so here goes. His characters speak with Milleresque rhetoric and moral passion but there’s no narrative shape, no elaboration of character, no synthesis of personality and incident. Phillips just shoves in every last detail that he’s uncovered during his years of research. The programme notes, which you can skim in five minutes, are more succinct, pointed and interesting than this three-hour marathon. His actors smoulder, in an adequate kind of way. Apparently, the Rosenbergs were physically besotted with each other, entwining their forlorn fingers through the chickenwire of their prison van on their way to the electric chair. But the Rubensteins, played by Samantha Bond and Will Keen, have all the steamy mutual attraction of a badger and a cheesecake.

In the second half, Gary Kemp, the songwriter from Spandau Ballet, pops up and does a serviceable turn as a narky government agent. But hang on. Gary Kemp? Hasn’t he got better things to do on a Saturday night? Presumably, the author had hopes that the climax of the play would bring the audience to its feet yelling, ‘Spare them the chair! Let them go! …’But I wanted these Rubenstein dullards executed after two minutes, on any charge. Parking ticket? Electrocute them. Unpaid fare? Terminate. Double yellow line? Fry them for breakfast. I was gladdened by Liz Ascroft’s stylish and fetching designs, the sole comfort in this blurry, boring show. As always with her work I wanted to nip on stage and take something home as a souvenir.

James Phillips’s folly in attempting to copy greatness is emulated by Sarah Kane. Phaedra’s Love is a rewrite of Euripides’ Hippolytus, one of the finest plays of the Athenian tradition. The wonder is that Kane makes it work. She rewrites the central character and turns Hippolytus, the pampered prince, from an icy prude into a sexual profligate. Weird move. Brilliant idea. This makes Phaedra — Hippolytus’ stepmother who adores him — seem far more credible and sympathetic. This stark and fabulously entertaining production suggests that there’s more to the ‘Young Genius’ season at the Young Vic than its silly and bombastic name. The show has closed, alas, as we go to press, but I’m now an enraptured devotee. I hope they can keep it up.


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