Friday 18 June 2010

An atheist architect

Like a Fishbone (An Argument and an architectural model), Bush Theatre, London

Near the close of Anthony Weigh’s play Like a Fishbone, a grieving mother clasps a crushed model of a school, her blood streaking the crisp, white building red. The school is part of a monument – or memorial – that has been designed to remember the children killed in a recent, tragic shooting spree. The mother is religious. She is also blind. But what can this unseeing mother see that the Memorial Committee cannot? And can she change the atheist architect’s mind on the night of the Memorial presentation? And just what is the function of a building, anyway? These are just some of the questions that Weigh’s probing but over-stuffed play explores, which contains some shafts of insight, but ultimately ends up as crushed as that blood-stained model.

The opening is promisingly awkward. An architect is making the final touches to her Memorial – the piece that might finally release her from her great, architect father’s shadow – when an unexpected visitor bursts into the office, dripping in rain. We know it is raining because Lucy Osborne has devised an uncannily realistic set - a brightly lit conference room, backed by windows, streaming with rainfall. Behind the windows stands a brick wall; the effect is of an exceptionally tight space, made closer still by the light that spills indiscriminately across the stage and audience. When Sarah Smart’s mother storms in, she is violating the audience’s and the architect’s privacy in equal measure.

A circling conversation ensues, during which Deborah Findley’s meticulous and rich-voiced architect, prowls the stage and tries to stay calm. What is the architect so afraid of? And why is the mother so angry? Weigh’s dialogue is the type one finds so often in young plays; full of sparse, stretched conversations that twang with suspense but refuse to give up the secret. It is the type of dialogue that builds a chasm of tension which, if the writing is not sublimely controlled, can consume a play altogether.

The mother eventually reveals her reason for visiting: her dead daughter has been haunting and advising her. Said (dead) daughter is unhappy with the memorial and the Mother’s final line, ‘We don’t want this’, is punctuated by a clap of music and a spooky snap of the lights. One thinks – hopes – that Weigh’s well of intrigue is to be filled by some supernatural philosophising, a strange and provocative visit from beyond the grave. But this is not to be.

Instead, Weigh’s writing forks out in multifarious directions, prodding one argument and then the next. The two, too starkly varied women (the mother dripping in rain and wearing a Crucible-stylee black coat; the architect bone dry and smartly dressed, her hair as erect as the mother’s frame is stooped, her voice has calm as the mother’s is cracked), discuss the memorial’s purpose. It is a pretty shoddy concept - the committee has decided to conserve the school just as it was on that fateful day – and the two, inevitably, clash. The architect, bizarrely oblivious to the emotional implications of her commission, blazes passionately about the honesty of her design. The Mother, understandably, is unimpressed. The problem is there is little room for manoeuvre: can a persuasive debate really be generated over such a ludicrous design? Is there any choice but for the audience to side firmly with this bedraggled and grieving mother?

This lukewarm line of argument burnt out, Weigh then focuses in on religion. He finds some interesting ideas, particularly when the mother begins to conceive of the Memorial as some sort of punishment for the faithful. The attacked school was a religious one and the mother spits out to the architect, ‘It’s a warning…against religion!’ and suggests that, these days, some people might believe religious people bring such tragedies upon themselves. It is a horrible and topical thought that is brushed away too quickly.

The debate continues to flow, as the rain beats down. The mother addresses the architect as a mum and accuses her of neglecting her son. A muted discussion about religious versus working mothers follows. The intern (played by a wonderfully preppy but slightly over-polished Phoebe Waller-Bridge) interrupts occasionally to spark yet more debate, musing that buildings are not ideas but ‘beautiful utensils’. Many lines are striking in isolation but often end up as red-herrings in the wider context of the play.

Smart is a fierce presence as the dizzied, distraught mother but her role often feels functional; a slightly cynical dramatic device. The fact she is blind is, in a practical sense, looked over: she doesn’t have a walking stick and she doesn’t seem able to navigate the room by herself. One suspects she is blind for the drama – enabling us to ‘see’ this unimaginable tragedy in a different light.

Deborah Findley is an assured performer but, other than a cloying final scene in which she calls her son and sings to him, there aren’t enough cracks in her character’s armour, making for a brittle role. That initial cavernous tension cannot hope to be filled by two characters who have precious little effect on each other and seem so far removed from each other’s realities.

At one point, Findley’s pristine architect hangs off the window, desperately trying to open it, whilst expounding about the ‘un-apeness’ of humanity that architecture expresses. This overplayed connection between action and idea suggests a playwright sensitive to his medium and rippling with intelligent thought – but one who hasn’t found a way to convincingly and subtly meld the two together.

Till 10 July 2010


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