Sins of the father

An underwhelming start gives way to an inspired reading of generational conflict

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The curse of the West End is predictability. How many nights have we spent in expensive seats silently wagering what the next line of dialogue will be, correctly guessing the next "twist", or estimating how many more lines it will take the playwright to reach his punchline? Too many. And when a play arrives from Broadway? Well, predict the predictable.

Although deemed worthy of a London revival only a decade after its premiere at the Donmar, Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain is not a great play. Yet it is not predictable and its chief surprise is that it turns out to be much better than its first act. To enjoy it, therefore, you should abandon this review, and its plot spoilers, now.

The verbal arias, sub-Albee slanging matches, name-dropping (Zelda Fitzgerald and Anaïs Nin) and fondness for difficult words (flâneur, anyone?) of Three Days will not be enough to get you through an evening that suffers not only from being located in the nowhere year of 1995 and cliché location of a "loft space" in "downtown Manhattan", but from one of the most irritating characters the London stage has seen for a while (possibly a decade).

I know last time I found Ian McDiarmid's condescending priest in Be Near Me annoying, but Walker, as played by cinema's golden boy James McAvoy, takes the cookie. This spoilt twentysomething depressive has disappeared for nine months following the death of his admired architect father, Ned. His sister gives every impression of having regretted his turning up again on the day of the will reading. Now back in New York, he has rented the very loft space used in the early Sixties by Ned and his business partner Theo.

Walker hates his dead father for having been too quiet, and compensates by being too noisy. He is triumphant at finding in the loft Ned's old journal, but then infuriated by how boring it is. One entry reads simply: "Three days of rain." Another sequence goes: "Theo is dying . . . Theo is dying . . . Theo is dead." Walker erupts in particular fury over the words in the diary "I stole everything", which, he satisfies himself, is a confession that his father stole creatively from Theo.

As Walker's homemaker sister, Nan, Lyndsey Marshal does not have much to do beyond register irritation and utter her character's repeated desire to "go eat". Nan is closer to Theo's son Pip (Nigel Harman), a soap actor who gets the best lines here because he faces up to Walker on the audience's behalf. He is particularly good at mocking Walker's "pain". By curtain fall we know the following: Nan and Walker's parents' marriage was one of convenience and desperation, their mother was a nut and Ned was an empty vessel who sponged off Theo. But do we really care?

Truly, if you plan to see this play, stop reading now. For Act II reverses everything. I don't know why when we returned from the interval the curtain was up. It would have been more dramatic for it to have lifted once we were back in our seats; then the loft would have been revealed in its 1960s glory. Gone are the self-obsessed Walker, the mundane Nan and the affably talentless Pip, replaced by their parents: Walker and Nan's stutteringly eloquent father, their logorrhoeic Southern belle of a mother, and Pip's dad, Theo, tortured by being wrongly considered the genius of the duo. Suddenly, the play is alive with romantic intrigue, artistic struggle and bohemian poverty, not to mention the cachet of belonging to the same era as Mad Men and Revolutionary Road. McAvoy, Marshal and Harman may be playing ghosts, but they are more substantial than their children in Act I.

These ghosts refute their heirs' assumptions. The "three days of rain" are not dull meteorology but an aide-memoire for the weekend Ned stole Theo's girlfriend. His "theft", we see, was not of Theo's talent, but of his lover, and it drove her mad. Yet despite their moral flaws, this play takes the unfashionable stance that we are worse, not better, than our parents' generation. If only all its surprises were so happy! Who, for instance, could have predicted that McAvoy, so captivating on screen, so loved from Shameless and Atonement, would, at the centre of this adequate night out, possess so little theatrical charisma that he would be upstaged by the humble former EastEnder Harman?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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