Search drama rescued from pretension at the last minute
Charles Spencer of the Telegraph reviews Tongue of a Bird, Almeida, Islington. 8 November 1997
IT WOULD be easy to make mock of Tongue of a Bird by the American dramatist Ellen McLaughlin, now receiving its European premiere at the Almeida. There are moments when it seems less like drama than a handy text for a feminist studies course. Modish magic realism keeps bustin' out all over and the poetic language often becomes embarrassingly florid. Pretentious? Pas moi?.
Yet there are also passages that are strong, distinctive and hauntingly personal, and by the end, against all the odds, the play has become both affecting and structurally satisfying.
The central character, Maxine, is a troubled but self-contained young woman who works as a search-and-rescue pilot in her beloved Cessna. She is far happier on her own in the air than on the ground with other people, and she has an extraordinary gift for spotting those who have gone missing.
At the start of the play she's hired by a distraught mother, Dessa, whose 12-year-old daughter has been lost in the mountains for the past 11 days. Maxine takes to the air to search for her, but she is also engaged in a more personal quest. When Maxine was a young child, her mentally ill mother committed suicide, and the play shows the pilot's attempts to come to terms with that grievous loss.
It's a touch schematic — one mother with lost daughter, another daughter with lost mother — and McLaughlin and the director Peter Gill create unnecessary difficulties for themselves. In best feminist fashion, for instance, fathers have been ridiculously excluded from the scenario.
Miriam Karlin also tests the patience as Maxine's grandmother, a Polish Jewish immigrant much given to sibylline utterance and chasing nonexistent bears with baseball bats. Eccentricity has rarely seemed so tiresome, though it's not quite as tiresome as the way the ghost of Maxine's mum keeps drifting over the stage on wires in a Biggles outfit.
What saves the show are two fine performances and the fact that when McLaughlin disencumbers herself of her poetic and ideological baggage, she writes with real strength and feeling.
Melanie Hill is memorably touching as the anguished mother, and there are details in the writing — her refusal to return her missing daughter's library books for instance — that hit home hard.
Deborah Findlay, a fine and undervalued actress, is outstanding as Maxine, finding humour in this po-faced play as well as a vein of deep emotion. The final scene, when she confronts her mother with her feelings of abandonment and remembers the circumstances of the suicide, raises the hairs on the back of the neck.
Peter Gill's production is too often stilted and banal when it ought to be fluid and dreamlike and William Dudley's design is spoilt by clumsy props and scene changes. When it takes flight, however, Tongue of a Bird really soars.
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