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Our Brother David (Watford, Palace Theatre)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
There’s nothing wrong, in theory, with taking a couple of Chekhov plays and twisting them to serve a different purpose. All those disappointed people who find themselves far from the febrility of the capital city, yearning for something – or someone – just out of reach and skating around more material concerns, such as money.

This universality seems to beg to be displayed in a context removed both in time and in place. But practice doesn’t always march in step with theory. Anthony Clark presents his characters for Our Brother David for this première production within a setting by Ruari Murchison. Both Clark’s direction and Murchison’s designs meld the naturalistic with something which also has affinities with ritual and the symbolic.

It is all effective enough to watch. The trouble is that these larger-than-life people seem constrained by their creator into two rather than three dimensions. They’re by no means puppets, but that vital spark of humanity which is needed to light the connexion between stage and audience seemed to be lacking. We pay attention, but I’m not sure that we emphasise.

We’re in a large house on the Suffolk coast. It has been a family home; now it’s a guest-house run (not very effectively) by part-time teacher Sophie and her brother David. David was, three decades ago, a photographer to rival Bailey Now he’s just a has-been – former millionaire, (presumably) former drug addict, former loving (too loving?) brother. It would have been sister Veronica’s birthday next day, but she died of cancer a couple of years earlier.

Also gathered to meet Veronica’s widower and his new girl-friend (who comes with teenage son in tow) are older sister Caroline, an author of children’s books suffering from writer’s block, former nanny now housekeeper Althea and long-standing friend Anthony, a geoscientist intent on shoring up the fast-eroding shoreline. He’s less intent on shoring up relationships, however.

When Lawrence arrives with Amelia and young Jason – not to mention a financial bombshell, David’s behaviour goes from bad to worse. But then, it becomes clear that no-one except perhaps Sophie and, to a lesser extent Caroline (who has a story-teller’s eye and ear for potential copy), has a proper grip on the difference between what was, what might have been, what is, and what must be.

You can’t fault the performances. Richard O’Callaghan gives us both the potential for genius and the self-destruction which are at war within David; he’s not afraid of the histrionics inherent in the part. Penny Layden is Sophie, trying so hard to balance her love for Anthony, her fear that it will never be returned and her duty to her family and her pupils, but ultimately failing. Camilla Power offers Amelia’s cool beauty as well as her innate vulnerability.

Both Anthony [Justin Avoth and Lawrence (Michael Lumsden) are studies in selfishness, well disguised as concern, and both actors are equally effective in their portrayals. I also liked Penny Beaumont’s Caroline and Beryl King’s sensible Althea. Hugh John makes an effective professional début as Jason, a boy who can cope more easily with adult than contemporaries’ quirks, but who still young enough to yearn for a dog of his own.


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