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Curse of the Starving Class

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

4 stars
American playwrights love a family affair, and there are few as extreme as Sam Shepard’s 1978 free-associative dissection of the Tate clan’s battle for personal and economic survival in a predatory consumerist world. All are looking for a way out of the door-less shack they call home, be it through Weston’s binges, Ella’s aspirational dalliances, while daughter Emma’s academic idealism conflicts with her brother Wesley’s inarticulate rage. The authority figures who step into their world, be they lawyer, cowboy club owner, cop or a debt-collecting double act, are representatives of an encroaching property boom about to sweep out the mess of the old world like a hurricane.

Shepard’s early plays are riddled with a wordy anger bordering on the verbose, so prone are they to poetic soliloquies that ape Greek rhetoric but teeter on the verge of manic self-parody. Yet, steeped in old west mythology applied to a post-war torper, Shepard messes up his domestic interiors with a heap of outside influences. The presence of a live lamb in Mark Thomson’s production is particularly disarming.

While clearly of its time in term of style, the play’s subject is oddly prescient for these recession-blighted times. Rather than damn capitalism with easy naturalism, though, heightened characterisations reveal it as a template for Particularly In The Heartland, young company The T.E.A.M’s own playful indictment of the American dream. Christopher Fairbank’s Weston is the grizzled embodiment of Shepardian disappointment, while Carla Mendonca is dressed up like a wound-up Barbie doll. It’s Alice Haig’s increasingly crazed Emma, though, who discovers that in a warped world crime really is the only thing that pays.

The Herald, March 23rd 2009

ends

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