8 APRIL 2006, Page 58

Addicted to niceness

Lloyd Evans

The American Pilot Soho Members Only Trafalgar Studio Beckett Centenary Festival Barbican David Greig. Wunderkind or waste of space? You may not be familiar with the name but Greig is a new (or newish) dramatist, widely praised, reasonably popular, whose latest work is being sponsored by the RSC. Clearly someone rates him. His plays are strong on plight, on dramatic predicament. He usually kicks off with a central figure caught in a tight spot and whose channels of communication are impaired or blocked. One play started with a stranded cosmonaut, another with an English climber struck down with amnesia in the Pyrenees. His latest work opens with a US Air Force pilot who crash-lands in some backward Muslim country which the author declines to identify. Let’s call it Feudistan. The Feudistanis react to their American windfall as you’d expect, with dislike, envy, fascination, fear and greed. An intriguing and volatile situation which Greig has little inclination to push very far. A subplot unfolds its frail petals. The American takes a shine to the village nubile, who is also being eyed up by the aging warlord. Neither romance has much dramatic potential since the American is a powerless captive who can’t speak Feudistani while the strutting warlord is free to pluck any bloom that takes his fancy.

The play examines the virtues and vices of the US. It also looks into various possible destinies for the pilot: release, ransom, decapitation. I was surprised how little I cared given that Greig has a tremendous gift for making his characters sympathetic. In all his plays, everyone’s point of view is represented with understanding and good sense. And that’s the trouble. Greig is addicted to niceness even when the situation calls for brutality. The American pilot is tortured several times by the Feudistanis but the attacks are presented symbolically. Sudden swiping gestures. Drum beats for blows. I suspect Greig lacked the appetite for these nasty moments but retained them for fear of disappointing the antiAmerican community. He seems too generous, humane and timid to be a playwright. He’s created a situation jammed full of explosive political questions. The result? A moderately entertaining play. Given the material, that’s a disaster.

The production is blessed with a fine cast of very English-looking Muslims. Sinead Keenan is tremulously powerful as Evie, the fiery teenage blonde. And David Rintoul is expertly cast as the sly, preening warlord with a voice like melting chocolate. Rintoul is a veteran of Audio Books and his purring larynx has brought comfort to legions of short-sighted pensioners. Barely stretched here, he’s easily the best thing in this muddled, disappointing play.

Elsewhere the hunt is on for the new Art. Yasmin Reza’s play about fractured male friendships ran for aeons in the West End. Here comes a pretender, Members Only. The plot is meagre, the chief interest lies in the absurd pettiness of the squabbles that overwhelm the characters. Bernard is arranging his 40th birthday when he discovers that his best friend Adrien has joined a dining club which precludes him from attending. Bernard is played by Robert Bathurst, who sometimes has an oddly negative quality. You know he’s there and yet he doesn’t really register — the Emil Heskey of the acting profession. But as Bernard he projects himself with plenty of flustered and jowly charm. Nicolas Tennant is equally good as his rasping, embittered colleague. The play is fun but it only starts to soar in the closing sections when the two friends try to strangle each other with their club ties. The search for the new Art continues.

At the Barbican, the Beckett Festival has opened, perhaps unwisely, with four of his trickiest and most obscure later plays. What a bizarre choice. In Rockaby, Sian Phillips uses her hypnotic voice to great effect, playing an old woman comforting herself with a death lullaby. Ohio Impromptu is a formalised and rather rigid snapshot of Beckett’s relationship with his mentor, Joyce. Hard work. These two make up a double bill that lasts barely 40 minutes. A second double bill opens with Come and Go, in which three elderly women engage in gossipy reminiscence. This austere, beautiful and teasingly funny sketch can be richly humorous but here the tempo is too sluggish. Stretched out to five minutes, it misses all of its comic moments. Footfalls is a haunting trifle in which a distracted daughter tries to communicate with her dying mother. By some distance this is the most satisfactory of the playlets. But these are slender and really rather negligible works and the wonder is that they’ve attracted any kind of crowd. But, hey, here’s the big surprise. Beckett is a sell-out.