7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 24


Frying tonight

Kenneth Hurren

Watching indifferent performances of wellmeaning plays by embryonic dramatists in dank cellars, converted (but not too converted) warehouses and railway sheds, disused garages and the backrooms of public houses — sometimes close to the crack of noon — may pleasure the hearts of the ardent young sprigs of the Guardian, whose masochism count is notoriously high, but myself I fit more easily in the lap of luxury. I can suffer any old foolishness almost gladly in a wellupholstered fauteuil, while, conversely, my enthusiasm even for masterpieces is subject to swift evaporation when the seating is giving me sacroiliac aches and the sightlines are giving me a crick in the neck.

In the ordinary way, I shyly disguise these feelings — having no wish to invite more scorn than already comes my way from the amusing cognoscenti who have the warped notion that anyone who can't happily munch a dog biscuit has no taste for anything but meringue — but a prudent examination of last week's agenda showed there was nothing doing for London reviewers except on the puband-club beat, and I took the week off. (By all accounts I missed a good one in the rare revival of Harold Brighouse's one-act piece, Lonesome-Like, one lunchtime at the Soho Poly, but that's the way it goes.) Operations were resumed on Monday at the Shaw Theatre — which may not be exactly West End, but it's comfy — with John McGrath's Bakke's Night of Fame, which has to do with the unusual behaviour of a condemned murderer on the eve of his execution in an American prison. Bakke's attitude varies from flamboyant defiance to cheerful indifference, and, is fairly exasperating for the people around him — notably the chief warder and the chaplain — who try vainly to press upon him physical and spiritual comforts. He declines to accept responsibility for their consciences, refuses even to confirm for the padre's peace of mind the certainty of his guilt, and generally runs amok among the repellent conventions of capital punishment. His ultimate triumph is Lo persuade the prison authorities to let him meet the man who is to operate the electric chair (with whom he wants "to establish a relationship "), whereat he promptly strips away the veneer of disinterest from the state's executioner and ensures, by taunts, that his own death will be no judicial dispatch, as officially claimed, but a murderously vindictive killing.

McGrath writes with vigour, urgency and stimulating irony, but he has burdened the play with a couple of alienating defects that are hard to overlook. One is his failure to offer more than vague hints at the circumstances of the murder: it may be irrelevant to his purpose whether Bakke is guilty or innocent, but without some mildly reasonable explanation for his arrest, confession and conviction, he can seem no more than an implausibly manipulated puppet. The other flaw — that of making Bakke a former actor — compounds the first. It provides a suitable excuse for his airy histrionics and the floridity of his conversation, but I'm afraid it deepens the suspicion that this is all a tendentious theatrical contrivance rather than the dilemma and predicament of recognisable human beings. It also makes more ferocious demands on Hywel Bennett, in the central role, than his genial talents can comfortably meet. Bennett is fine at suggesting a youngster who has larkishly landed himself in the soup; I couldn't take him quite seriously as a man about to be fried.