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Mappa Mundi
by Lizzie Loveridge

Dad if you don't stop this I seriously am going to have to put you in a home. You'll have to wear a plastic bib and incontinence pants and spend all day with old women with beards that you can't stand, and believe me you won't like it. But it'll serve you right.
-- Anna
Mappa Mundi
Alun Armstrong
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
Shelagh Stephenson's play The Memory of Water won the Olivier award for best new comedy in 2000. Her latest play showing at the National Theatre's small space, the Cottesloe, is Mappa Mundi which sold out as probably due to its star billing of Sir Ian Holm. A few weeks ago, Sir Ian had to withdraw due to a recurring illness and is replaced by the very capable Alun Armstrong but the press night was delayed by two weeks.

Armstrong plays a septuagenarian, Jack, who has only a few months to live. Jack lives with his daughter Anna (Lia Wiliams) who at 40 is about to be married for the first time to Sholto (Patrick Robinson), a fellow lawyer, whose family came to the UK from the tiny West Indian island of Barbuda, near Antigua. Jack's son, Michael (Tim McInnerney) is an out of work actor with a failed marriage. In the play, Jack looks back on his life with disappointment and, to Portia (Alibe Parsons) Sholto's mother, confesses an incident where a man was killed in Aden.

Stephenson gives us a gentle and wry look back on the substance of one man's life but there is not really very much there to involve the audience. There are plenty of amusing anecdotes and exposure of Jack's irrational prejudices as he battles with a younger and more free thinking generation. Much is made in the blurb of Jack's interest in maps and genealogy but this is only used to make two points. The cartography interest results in his being given a map, actually a helicopter bird's eye photographic view of his town, showing where he lived, went to school, was married, joined up in a rather artificial way with a heavy red line. Jack feels there is more to his life than this rather simplistic map. I've just realised Aden didn't make the cut. The genealogical interest is largely incidental but Anna enjoys thinking that she was related to not only the slave master but to Dido, a presumed slave, only to be told by Sholto that what matters is what she is now. Most of the discussion about whether to tell someone they are dying has been superseded by new guidelines in the Health Service.

I felt Jack was a lot older that the seventy year olds I know, both in the physical sense, although he has a terminal disease and is wheelchair bound, and in attitude, he is cantankerous and bigoted. Alun Armstrong does very well with the part and I do not think that Ian Holm's performance would have lifted the play. There are two scenes of dancing at the end of each act, a marriage dance, which struck me as contrived and irrelevant. I see from the text that Sholto is meant to be a dancer as well as a lawyer but this didn't happen. Perhaps Stephenson's point was to compare life chances for Jack (who said he would have liked to be an opera singer rather than a bookkeeper) and Sholto. Lia Williams is, as ever, delightful, as the dutiful daughter who cares for the grumpy old man. Tim McInnerney has some funny lines to counter Jack who, in Julie Burchill style, voices his contempt for thespians. Michael counters with, "He's frightened to go to the theatre in case people think he's homosexual." James Hayes has an amusing cameo as a mealy mouthed priest.

Ruari Murchison's set is a pleasant suburban garden with an old map projected at the rear, sometimes replaced by old photographs from a family history collection. There is Indian music between each scene though why, I am at a loss to say.

Jack's conclusion as his life draws to a close, from reading Schroedinger's Cat and a quick dip into quantum physics, is "I started out as a particle, travelled as a wave and I'll arrive as a particle." It is a disappointing end to a disappointing play. Somehow Stephenson's writing here doesn't haunt as it does in her other plays.

LINKS to Curtain Up reviews of Shelagh Stephenson's other plays
The Memory of Water
Ancient Lights
Five Kinds of Silence (London)
An Experiemnt with an Air Pump

Mappa Mundi
Written by Shelagh Stephenson
Directed by Bill Alexander

Starring: Alun Armstrong and Lia Williams
With: Tim McInnerney, James Hayes, Patrick Robinson, Alibe Parsons.
Dancers: Cody Ka-Lok Choi, Juliet Codlin, Gerrard Martin, Benny Maslov, Lorena Randi, Supple.
Designer: Ruari Murchison
Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant
Music : Jonathan Goldstein
Sound Designer: David Tinson
Running time: Two hours forty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 29th November 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th November 2002 performance at the Cottesloe Theatre, National Theatre, Upper Ground, London SE1 (Tube Station: Waterloo)
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