Review: Compelling portrayal of hopelessness

Curse of the Starving,Class Royal Lyceum

GUT-BUSTINGLY funny and heartrendingly bleak by turns, Sam Shepard's tragicomedy of white-trash rural America in the 1960s finds surprising modern resonances in this new production at the Royal Lyceum.

A 20th century fable of a family brought low by their belief in the American dream, the comedy lies not in their situation, but in how they cope with it. Like Shameless or Trainspotting, you can only cheer as the characters fight back against the system.

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Yet there can be no real hope. Particularly not for Weston Tate, the alcoholic father who is absent more often than not. A failed farmer who flew bombers in WW2, he is crushed by his situation.

Christopher Fairbank, best known for his role as Moxey in Auf Wiedersehen Pet, is stunning in the part.

A horrifyingly believable drunk who has tremendously physical stage presence, there is no question that he would kick down a door locked against him or that he is a dupe for a get-rich-quick opportunity.

Carla Mendona is ferocious as his delusional wife, Ella, who is trying to sell the farm so she can take her family off to Europe.

Distracted and gaunt, Mendona is as believable as Fairbank and creates a character who is clearly going to be a victim of any man she meets.

Yet it is newcomer Alice Haig as daughter Emma who really holds the attention. She has a perfect sense of the pace and meter of Shepard's language, shrieking and screaming in a brilliantly tight opening-act argument, yet drawing the audience into her own flights of fantasy when asked to.

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Unfortunately Christopher Brandon, who plays the dim, stay-at-home brother Wesley, doesn't have the same sense for pace and rhythm. He is lunk-headed enough, but just can't seem to use his lines to take the audience away from the action to see it from his own point of view.

Director Mark Thomson has brought a sense of an external force to the production, holding the action for moments at a time so that it is clear these people have no real control of their own destinies.

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Generally this works and helps emphasise that the dislocation between the Tates and the institutions which own them – or their credit – is the same one that has brought about the current crisis in the banking system. However, it doesn't find enough subtlety to round off the more obvious sharp edges of symbolism in the writing.

With a live lamb for on-stage cuteness (and maximum audience distraction) offset by adult themes and nudity, this becomes something of a hotchpotch by its explosive ending.

Using surreal flights of fancy to enlighten realism can create fascinating drama, but here it just clouds the issue a little too much.

Run ends April 11