Finding himself between acting jobs Torben Betts turned writer. This was back in 1993 and the initial creative murmurings produced the first draft of A Listening Heaven. Convinced that he had a masterpiece on his hands, Betts banged several copies out to theatres committed to new writing. The doormat of the Stephen Joseph Theatre literary department was one of the recipients and now, several re-writes later, the work is alive on stage at the SJT, where Betts is also enjoying a six month tenure as writer-in-residence.
An idealistic young eco-warrior commits suicide, leaving his family to cope. The family's disparate nature ensures that the handling of grief is left to the individuals and their own belief systems. Hence mother Christine (Alexandra Mathie) gets stuck into the buffet preparation, aunt Rosie (Eileen Battye) hits the bottle and sister Gillian (Charlie Hayes) turns to art, while Helen (Antonia Pemberton) chooses to forget that her life has been a waste by watching some Formula One and adulterous dad David (Robert Blythe) just wants everyone to be happy - a little tricky on the day of a funeral.
All of this takes place in the Pip Leckenby designed and rather nicely fitted hardwood country kitchen, as the jungle beats of the eco-friendly tribe beat on the nearby fields. Scene transitions are accompanied by slide shows reminding us of the important presence of trees while Paul Towson changes the mood in the second act with his impressive use of candlelight.
Attempting to find his voice, Betts presents opinions on a variety of issues, yet the middle class comfort of his characters gives the political polemic a wishy-washy liberal bent. Terence Booth, extremely entertaining as the boorish uncle Derrick, gets to espouse a few pertinent points about transport in between being extremely anal about wine, cheese and route planning.
Directed by Natasha Betteridge, the resident company of actors once again gel well. Mathie turns in an outstanding finale of emotional collapse when the crudités no longer serve as a crutch, and between the naturalist goings-on, there are some deft Pinteresque pauses.
If anything, A Listening Heaven is overloaded with the thoughts of the writer - thematically, this play is in a muddle. But there is a lot of promise on show and one assumes the potential will be fulfilled as Betts further hones his talent.