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Review: A Lie of the Mind (Southwark Playhouse)

Defibrillator stage Sam Shepard's play about how two families deal with domestic abuse

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Sam Shepard once declared that he thought his 1985 play A Lie of the Mind was better than his Pulitzer-winning Buried Child. Well, it's surprisingly difficult to see that from this production which mis-steps through what should be a masterfully ambiguous, haunting and funny two hours.

Full disclosure: I saw Defibrillator's production a little early – it was still in previews – but it was hard to see how much it might have changed by opening night. Where the piece should hover somewhere intangibly between reality and fantasy, it thudded and dragged, earthbound.

To be fair, Shepard is a slippery playwright. In his plays you're often never entirely sure what the hell is going on, and in-fact, why the hell it is going on. People rarely react in the way you'd expect them to and often the most vicious act is oddly glossed over.

That's a case in point here. We first meet Beth after she has been beaten so badly by her husband Jake that she is left with crippling brain damage. Waking up in a hospital room, her brother at her side, she is bruised and barely able to speak, let alone walk. Sentences for her now consist of a kind of scrambled mind poetry – she mixes what she sees and feels with what she remembers. Jake, meanwhile, has been taken in by his brother and mother, who are determined to keep him locked up until he sorts himself out. Jake tells them, because he believes it, that he has killed Beth.

What we see in the play is two sides of one dysfunctional relationship, but through the prism of their families. The scenes oscillate between Beth and her family and Jake and his. Beth's angry, hunting obsessed father and her downtrodden mother have no love left in their marriage, while her brother has no purpose. Jake's sister is hated on by her mother who is overbearing and living in the past, intent on reducing her son back to the little boy he once was.

The brutality and drama of what has happened slides off everything, in a way only Shepard seems to be able to pull off. So instead of feeling it acutely, the full force of what has happened hangs quietly in the background. After about an hour, you begin to realise that no-one has really even reacted to the fact that Beth is now a shadow of what she once was – least of all her parents.

There is a glimmer of what such a great play this is in this production, but it struggles to break through a disjointed staging from James Hillier. Rebecca Brower's designs set the action mainly on two different levels, making most of the scenes feel too separate from the audience. There's too much disconnect.

Each scene is interrupted by some bluesy, moody tunes played by James Marples which hits the right tone, but it feels like too much emphasis has been put on getting the atmosphere from the music, rather than the action on stage.

Nancy Crane as Meg, Beth's mother, captures the essence of the play beautifully. She brings the humour and awfulness right to the surface. The rest of the cast struggle somewhat with the obliqueness and transparency of the writing. This is a strong play let down by a struggling production.

A Lie of the Mind runs at Southwark Playhouse until 27 May.