Wednesday 18 January 2006

The Gabriels

Finborough Theatre, London

Van Badham’s latest offering takes on a characteristically hot issue, with a now familiar combination of political and personal conflict animating the relationships between the characters. An unconventional family strains under the weight of everyday strife and trauma flavoured by an ethical dispute over the role of science and the status of life.

Of Badham’s previous work, The Gabriels most resembles Camarilla, which indeed also featured Lois Norman (Bonnet) in a similar role, namely an older version of Badham herself, bewildered by the lifestyle choices and worldviews of her offspring. Badham’s plays don’t so much promote her own left-wing, feminist politics, as perform experiments on them, putting them in awkward situations, poking them a bit, and letting the audience sit back and see what happens.

Bonnet, as well as being mother to the grown up Jude and a learning-disabled toddler jointly conceived (in the sense that a movie is conceived) with her own partner Jane and gay couple Jerry and Allen, is a comic book writer. While her more successful work is lesbian erotica, her current project is set in a near future in which a Christian fundamentalist government has come to power, putting a stop to embryo research, and leaving the human consequences of its experiments to live lives that were never meant to be.

Whereas Mark Ravenhill’s Handbag, which also concerns a gay couple and a lesbian couple having a child together, focuses surprisingly pessimistically on the consequences for parenting of such characteristically postmodern, provisional relationships, The Gabriels is more concerned with conflicting ideas about life itself. Having pitched the debate with Christian fundamentalists on one side, and enlightened secular humanists on the other, it is not surprising that Badham has the latter come off rather better, with a fine speech by science writer (and one half of the gay couple) Jerry, convincingly portrayed by Kevin Colson.

In the world beyond the Finborough, things tend to be a bit messier, with many right-on lefties getting distinctly queasy about genetic science and stem-cell research, especially when (inevitably) commercial business is involved. But Badham doesn’t put contemporary anti-science trends entirely down to the ill effects of Bible-bashing. Bonnet’s son Jude (Declan Harvey) explains that he needs to believe that there is more to life than coming and going, and we are invited to sympathise with this more candidly human objection to scientific instrumentalism. We don’t, of course, but you can’t say Badham isn’t trying. The cartoon dystopia gives further headspace to contemporary fears about the future, even though its ostensible target is religion rather than science.

James Cotterill’s design, with a series of cartoon strip-like windows on the back wall of the main, domestic set, through which we view the actors in comic-book mode, allows director Helen Eastman to make the most of Badham’s split narrative. Bonnet sits at her kitchen table and takes notes as her characters act out their story, while the audience sits another layer back observing the whole thing. The comic-book story is suitably daft. Polly Conway, who plays Talitha, has a perfect face for cartoons (that’s meant as a compliment), while the rest of the cast also get into the comic-book spirit for their secondary roles.

The Gabriels is political theatre in the old-fashioned sense of a forum within which a real-life debate can be brought to life and pondered by the audience. Badham certainly doesn’t have all the answers, and for me the frequent Old Testament exerpts add little to the play, but there is enough going on here to stimulate thought and discussion whether people come to it with prior knowledge and opinions about stem cell research, or as uninitiated punters in search of entertainment. As Bart Simpson memorably put it, ‘God, schmod - I want my monkey-man’.



Till 28 January 2006


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The Stage
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Royal Shakespeare Company
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