Give Me Your Answer, Do! at the Hampstead Theatre

It is said that when a writer starts writing about writers, they ve run out of material. Too much time isolated from the rest of the world with only their craft to keep them warm. If that s the case, then Brian Friel s latest play Give Me Your Answer, Do! is a case in point. Here we get not just one writer but two, with doses of literary debates, name-that-quote challenges, vocabulary jousting and even a game of Scrabble thrown in for good measure. Anything to demonstrate just how clever - and out of touch - writers can be.

Tom Connolly (Niall Buggy), plagued with writers block of course, hasn t published in seven years and is on the brink of financial ruin, further sapped by his daughter s long-term psychiatric hospitalisation and living in a ramshackle old country house in Donegal. Enter guest David (Aneirin Hughes) who is evaluating Tom s papers for an American university. Will he buy them and stave off the Connollys crisis?

An assortment of friends and family gather to hang on the answer. And what a depressing display of marriage and middle-class humanity this is. One by one they are systematically paraded across the stage to introduce themselves and their afflictions. What we end up with is more a collection of character flaws than characters. There s wife Daisy (Geraldine James), bored and borderline alcoholic; Daisy s arthritic mother (Margaret Tyzack) and her dandy kleptomaniac father (John Woodvine); and bickering friends Garret (Gawn Grainger) and Grainne (Sorcha Cusack) Fitzmaurice. Garret may be a more successful author but has been disloyal to his art, compromising principles for popularity. And then there s post-nervous breakdown David who hasn t got a partner to fall out with and hangs around, seeming like he should be more important to the plot.

Despite all of this showmanship, the cast do manage some fine performances. Woodvine is captivating as the mischievous little boy - singing one moment, bawling the next - in an old man s body. And Buggy s Tom is certainly sympathetic as the bewildered and broken man given to flashes of anger.

But ultimately, none can escape the confines of a script which offers them no resolutions to their situations. Perhaps Friel is teasing us when Daisy muses that “being alive is a postponement of verdicts” - just like some plays. By the time the big ‘answer on the papers is given, even it has become incidental and inconclusive.

Terri Paddock