Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1
Opened 28 April, 2005

Twice during Douglas Maxwell's play, actress Cora Bissett is required to sing Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go". Her guitar playing and vocals are technically fine, but the song is slowed to half-speed and sung in a fausse-Alanis Morrisette whine. It's an emblem for the piece as a whole: well enough put together, but full of wrong-headed choices.

Vincent, the malcontent narrator, thinks of himself as a conceptual art terrorist, wreaking graffiti mischief around the town of New Flood. When this no-good hole wins the Worst Town in Scotland award, Vincent persuades his wannabe-politico friend Michael that they could sew up the award grant for several years if they cleverly invested in making the place even worse a sort of civic version of The Producers. Michael, in turn, is outflanked by corrupt, Luciferic pharmacist Sweeny, who is pursuing his own vision of ruination. His plan for social disintegration is twofold: make people scared of what is outside their doors, and keep them indoors by wiring them up to the Internet, offering a spurious sense of virtual community whilst atrophying the real one.

They're interesting ideas, but dramatically a bit too obvious as An Evil Scheme: compare this poisoning of a small town, which ends the Paines Plough company's "This Other England" season of new plays, with that portrayed by Enda Walsh in the season's opening show The Small Things, and Maxwell's is far the paler version. Moreover, Sweeny's plan is foiled by a number of characters suddenly rediscovering their social hearts, in a turn of sentimentality that simply cops out both dramatically and intellectually. Director John Tiffany is excellent on reined-in naturalism, less so when he decides to be exuberant and oblique, and this is an instance of the latter approach. (The half-hearted, self-conscious movement sequences are just embarrassing.)

The published playscript farts around with typographical effects, some of which are reproduced in performance by mock-computer-typing projections on the back wall. However, aside from these and the occasional obvious rhyme, there's little sign of engagement with language as a force which shapes our identities, as set out in the season's rubric and impressively realised by Walsh, Philip Ridley and David Greig each in their own ways. It brings the strand to a disappointing, anticlimactic end.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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