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Family at war

I couldn’t wait for this one. Nina Raine’s debut play Rabbit was a blast. With exquisite scalpel-work she dissected the romantic entanglements of a quartet of posh young professionals. Her new effort, Tribes, opens on similar terrain. A family of bourgeois Londoners are seated around the dinner table punishing each other with rhetorical flick-knives. Dad and Mum are writers. Ruth is a jobless soprano. Dan is wasting his youth smoking skunk and writing an impenetrable thesis on linguistics.

30 October 2010

12:00 AM

30 October 2010

12:00 AM

I couldn’t wait for this one. Nina Raine’s debut play Rabbit was a blast. With exquisite scalpel-work she dissected the romantic entanglements of a quartet of posh young professionals. Her new effort, Tribes, opens on similar terrain. A family of bourgeois Londoners are seated around the dinner table punishing each other with rhetorical flick-knives. Dad and Mum are writers. Ruth is a jobless soprano. Dan is wasting his youth smoking skunk and writing an impenetrable thesis on linguistics.

I couldn’t wait for this one. Nina Raine’s debut play Rabbit was a blast. With exquisite scalpel-work she dissected the romantic entanglements of a quartet of posh young professionals. Her new effort, Tribes, opens on similar terrain. A family of bourgeois Londoners are seated around the dinner table punishing each other with rhetorical flick-knives. Dad and Mum are writers. Ruth is a jobless soprano. Dan is wasting his youth smoking skunk and writing an impenetrable thesis on linguistics.

A third child, Billy, is profoundly deaf and is continually patronised by his family. Raine’s dialogue glitters with self-delighting cruelty. Dad (played with malignant precision by Stanley Townsend) prowls the room unleashing weapons-grade invective at his absent enemies. ‘Why would you want to stick your cock in that cement-mixer?’ he says of his sister-in-law. ‘She was a northern twat,’ he tells Dan, of an ex-girlfriend. ‘She had all the charisma of a bus shelter. After spending time with her your IQ visibly halved.’ The London audience guffawed merrily at these near-forbidden slurs and I joined in, my pleasure heightened by my adjacency to Paul Morley, a fundamentalist northerner, whose ashen face was Botoxed into a look of insatiable hostility throughout the play.


But then the focus shifted. The razor-sharp dialogue softened and gave way to earnest soul-searching. We follow Billy’s romance with a deaf girl who teaches him sign language and breaks family protocol by drawing him into the deaf community that his parents had always shunned as a ghetto. The play is not uninteresting. It’s just not much fun. Those who are stone-deaf, partially deaf, going deaf, recovering from deafness or related to anyone in these phases of hearing deficiency will be gripped. Even those with lugs in top nick will be interested to know that the deaf community is an insular, hierarchical and strangely snobbish world rather than the happy chapel of busy-handed benevolence we all imagined it to be.

But the play’s structural defects are fatal to its success. In one weird interlude Billy’s lip-reading abilities land him a job with the CPS interpreting CCTV footage of crooks plotting bank jobs. But he fabricates incriminating dialogue and sends innocent men to jail. This act of motiveless sadism isn’t followed up. And when Dan develops a crippling speech impediment the dialogue slows to a tortoise’s crawl. There are scenes between stammering Dan, stone-deaf Billy and his soundproof girlfriend where whole minutes pass without anyone managing to finish a complete word. Finally, the play puts itself out of its misery with a soppy conclusion imported from California, which involves hugging, weeping and moody illuminations.

Students of bitchcraft know Nina Raine as one of the theatre’s finest young talents but instead of giving the fun-hungry public a slice of good old entertainment she’s served up an ominous wodge of ‘dissertation theatre’ aimed at head-scratching PhD layabouts with burst eardrums. Hello, Miss Raine? This is not a large audience. I hope you can you hear me.

To Theatre 503 for a brand-new burst of political comedy from Gabriel Bisset-Smith. In The Charming Man he asks us if Britain is ready to vote for a member of a fashionable minority. The play opens with a newly invigorated Green party challenging for No. 10 under the leadership of a gay black youth-worker named Darren. He’s the classic anti-politics candidate, no previous experience, no early ambition, no particular creed, just four limbs and some matey charisma sheathed in Ozwald Boateng.

The play is good fun and has some amiably silly twists. The LibDems have rebranded themselves as Neo-LibDems and invite the public to choose their leader on a televised ice-dancing phone-in show. It’s a pity that when Bisset-Smith wants to makes serious points about compromises his political antennae go a little wonky. To appease Anglicans and homophobes, Darren contracts a sham marriage and ‘finds God’ just before the election. The voters are expected to accept these moral conjuring tricks when of course they would see straight through them. Syrus Lowe plays Darren with plenty of goofy charm but the outstanding performance comes from Christopher Brandon who specialises in hilarious Nazis.

He plays two here: a narcissistic shock-jock called Chris and a sinister young South African billionaire name Kenny, who bankrolls the Greens in the hope of cashing in on future energy deals. Looking like an SS icon, with corn-yellow hair and blowtorch-blue eyes, Kenny stalks the party headquarters taking crazy swings at special advisers with his silver golf club and spitting out insane comments in a beautifully modulated Sithiffrican iksent. ‘Know what oi do when oim in a bad mewd? Oi loik to hunt woild inimals with a nail-gun.’ This isn’t a great play, if I’m honest, but it has many moments of wonderful comedy.


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