Theatre review: If That's All There Is/The Doubtful Guest





IF YOU WANT TO SEE the 21st century equivalent of those middle-class "Loamshire" plays that dominated English theatre in the early 1950s – and drove critic Kenneth Tynan into such a rage – then hurry to the Traverse, and join the crowd of smart young things heading for these two shows. Lightly brushed by the influence of companies like Thtre De Complicit, and by all the major theatre movements of the last 30 years, these shows present themselves as vaguely radical and cutting-edge; their style is not naturalistic, and features plenty of movement, and at least the possibility of a fractured narrative.

But that's where the radicalism ends; because these shows are so profoundly, narrowly and unquestioningly bourgeois, in their preoccupations and perspective, that even at their best, they run little risk of making a serious dent in their audience's view of the world. Inspector Sands's If That's All There Is, for example, is a strikingly classy example of the genre, and one that speaks directly, if in a slightly limited way, to this year's big Fringe theme of middle-class couples trying to keep their relationships alive.

In this already successful show, Ben Lewis plays a bridegroom who, in the first scene of the play, has his wedding speech rudely interrupted by someone who shoots him in the heart. The rest of the show seeks to demonstrate exactly why either his increasingly hysterical fiance, or his female shrink, might have been moved to murder him, given that he is the kind of man who thinks the appropriate response to his girlfriend's growing distress is to write a PowerPoint presentation, and present it to the shrink for diagnosis.

The show fails, for some reason, to bring its story to a conclusion; personally, I think the shrink did it, and quite right too. But in the course of this sad and sometimes irritating tale, there's space for some shrewd and almost tragic insights into the way the British always get sex wrong; and never seem to understand that if you try to domesticate it completely – in a shower of tedious consumerism, cake decorations and seating plans – then it simply dies, leaving two lives empty of joy.

As for Hoipolloi's Doubtful Guest, this is an over-extended Crackerjack sketch of a show, a beautifully presented piece of Victorian Gothic spoofery so devoid of ideas or significant content that its 90 minutes seem endless. Based on a book in rhyming verse by camp 20th-century American satirist Edward Gorey, the show tells the tale of an aristocratic family in a large stately pile whose peace is invaded by a cheeky bird-like creature who steals their things, disrupts their way of life, and eventually reduces them all to gibbering nervous wrecks.

To judge by the couplets from Gorey's book that occasionally appear above the stage, his verse has a cheeky satirical energy, and a quiet complicity with the naughty visitor, that gives it a strong sense of comic purpose and drive. But in transferring the show to the stage, writer-director Shon Dale-Jones has all but lost this sense of distance from the story's cast of aristocratic characters. Instead, what we get is a mildly comic romp about how ghastly it is to have one's nice country-house life disrupted by alien forces; and although Stefanie Muller's design and Peter Harrison's lighting are gorgeous, the idea that this sort of middlebrow tosh has any serious role in the future of theatre is ridiculous, and ought to be knocked on the head, right now.


Both shows until 30 August. If That's All There Is, today 3:30pm; The Doubtful Guest today 10am.