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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at THE Lyric (Hammersmith)


  Timothy O'Hara/ Ph: Marc Brenner

The third offering in Edward Bond's bleak trilogy known as The Chair Plays contains one of the most arresting images I've seen on stage in recent times. A door swings open revealing the fate of one of two main characters in Bond's play. It would reveal too much to describe the image here. But the moment will stay a long time in the mind. Unfortunately, so will the sense that its impact is greater than the play that gives rise to it deserves.

Billy is a childlike adult with learning difficulties. Alice protects him from a hostile world governed by a pitiless and paranoid regime. They live in fear, but Billy yearns to be let out of the room, while Alice, who might be his mother but who we later learn found Billy in a cardboard box when he was a baby, dares not provoke the malign authorities outside.

Bond specialises in grim theatrical prophecies about the future of Western civilisation. They have haunted the English stage ever since his 1965 play Saved depicted the stoning of a baby. The Lyric's artistic director Sean Holmes recently gave Saved an overdue revival, which confirmed it had lost none of its power or relevance. But here Bond's vision, sparsely directed by the author and first seen – or rather heard – as a radio play in 2000, is diminished by our familiarity with nightmares of the urban dystopia kind. 

As with Have I None and The Under Room, the other two plays in the trilogy, Chair is set in 2077, a time when you can't look out the window without risking a lot of trouble. In the street below there is a soldier and his prisoner – an old woman - who wait for a bus to transport her to a jail. Alice's decision to go downstairs and offer them a chair is a rare compassionate gesture for which she could – and does – pay dearly.

What we know about this world is that it is dangerous to go outside and that the slightest deviation from the rules will result in extreme punishment by a judgmental regime. It's a 1984 scenario, and it still has the power to concentrate the mind on our increasingly fragile freedoms.

But whereas in 1965 Bond had the ear-splitting impact of an air-raid siren, today such newly wrought warnings come across as one of those tired fire alarms that no one ever responds to. Orwellian visions have become very common since Orwell gave us his in 1949. In 2000, when Chair was first being broadcast, Caryl Churchill's Far Away received its world premiere at the Royal Court. It too warned of a coming shift in morality and of a climate of conflict in which the most blameless acts of humanity exist in parallel to casual atrocity.

Here Bond takes longer to say something similar (although Churchill's play is only 15 minutes long) and without the slightest hint of humour, which makes it feel longer than its 90 minutes. Rather like pitch darkness, which cannot be fully appreciated until the tiniest vestige of light has been extinguished, a complete and deliberate lack of humour is as oppressive as the absence of light. And although there is and should always be a place in the canon for such bleak visions, the best are capable of galvanising the audience into examining how best to avoid their predicted future. Here bond simply imposes a sense of helpless depression. Although there was one unexpected twist. As we trooped out of the theatre a military helicopter on a pre-Olympics security exercise swooped low overhead. And suddenly it seemed as if Bond's prophecy had arrived.


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